Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced her resignation, saying the job “takes its toll on you and all around you”.
The SNP leader made the the shock announcement during a press conference in Edinburgh at her official residence, Bute House.
She said it had been “the very best job in the world” and one that has “sustained and inspired me in good times and in the toughest hours of my toughest days”.
But Ms Sturgeon said she believed part of “serving well would be to know almost instinctively when the time is right” to step down, adding: “In my head and in my heart I know that time is now, that it is right for me and my party and for the country.”
The longest serving and first woman first minister insisted her decision was not down to “short term pressures”, such as the ongoing divisions in her party about transgender rights.
Instead, she said her exit “frees the SNP to choose the path it believes to be the right one” when it comes to Scottish independence – due to be discussed at a special conference next month – “without worrying about the perceived implications for my leadership”.
Ms Sturgeon said it was a personal decision too, saying: “I am not expecting violins here, but I am a human being as well as a politician. Giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job is the only way to do it. The country deserves nothing less.
“But in truth that can only be done by anyone for so long. For me, it is now in danger of becoming too long.
She added: “To those who do feel shocked or disappointed, or perhaps even a bit angry with me, please… be in no doubt that this is really hard for me.
“My decision comes from a place of duty and of love. Tough love, perhaps, but love nevertheless for my party and above all for the country.”
The first minister confirmed she would stay in post until somebody else takes over and remain as an MSP until at least the next Holyrood election.
She said the SNP would announce the process for electing a new leader over the coming days, but refused to say who her preferred candidate would be.
Members of her party have paid tribute to her time in office, with SNP president Michael Russell thanking her for her “extraordinary and brilliant leadership of her party and country”.
SNP MP Alison Thewliss said she was “absolutely gutted” about the news, adding: “Nicola has been an incredible leader.”
And fellow MP Stewart McDonald, called Ms Sturgeon “the finest public servant of the devolution age” and said it would be “an enormous loss” to the country and party.
Those from outside the SNP have also paid tribute, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak thanking her for “her long-standing service”, adding: “I wish her all the best for her next steps.”
Scotland secretary Alister Jack also described her as “a formidable politician”.
Ms Sturgeon has led the party and the country since 2014 after taking over from her predecessor, Alex Salmond, making her the longest serving and first woman first minister since devolution to Holyrood.
But she has been involved in the SNP all her adult life, joining the party at the age of 16.
As first minister, she has secured election successes at every poll and continued to push for Scottish independence, campaigning for a second referendum on the decision.
That, along with her strong anti-Brexit stance, has left her at loggerheads with the UK government, led by the Conservatives, who back keeping the UK together and have refused to offer up another vote on independence.
A senior Labour source said her decision showed it was “all over” for the independence campaign, and showed “after 15 years of failure, the SNP have run out of road”.
‘I will always be a feminist’
There have been a number of tricky issues for Ms Sturgeon in recent months, including splits in the party over her approach to transgender rights, and over her bill on gender recognition.
Despite passing the legislation in Holyrood – which would have meant people could legally change their gender in Scotland without a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria – the bill was then blocked by Westminster, with ministers claiming it would have a “significant impact” on equalities.
Asked whether it was this issue that made her final decision, Ms Sturgeon said no, but made a plea for “a more rational approach to these debates”.
“One in particular right now is obviously controversial in its own right,” she added. “But I think layered on to the top of that, there has been people’s views about me, about independence and suddenly debates that should be rational and that we are capable as a country of having rationally become something [different].
“I will always be a voice for inclusion, for equality, for human rights and dignity and I have been, and will always be, a feminist. I will fight for women’s rights and I will stand up against threats to women’s rights that every day that I have breath in my body.
“But I’ll also stand up for any stigmatised, discriminated against, marginalised, vulnerable group in society.
“And I believe these things can and must, in any progressive, liberal, inclusive society, find ways of co-existing and whatever rule I play in politics in the future, I will always seek to do everything I can to turn that into a reality.”
SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who has been a longstanding critic of Ms Sturgeon’s approach on transgender issues, called for “reform and healing” in light of the first minister’s departure.
“It is vital that (the SNP) reacts to the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon in a way that is beneficial to the country and the cause of independence,” the MP for Edinburgh South West tweeted. “Our party needs a leadership election that is about policies and not personalities.
“We must restore the SNP’s tradition of internal party democracy, open respectful debate and intellectual rigour and we must also put the welfare of everyone living in Scotland back at the heart of our endeavours.”