As each of the candidates made their opening pitch in the STV debate, it was clear that this was not going to be a restrained affair, where fraternal greetings among comrades would be the order of the day.
By the standard of the party hustings, this was in some respects quite a bruising contest and one which would have delighted Holyrood’s opposition parties and may well have irked the current First Minister had she been tuning in.
Ash Regan, the insurgent who wants nothing to do with “wishy washy” strategies on independence, declared with her very first words “the SNP has lost its way”. Quite a statement from a former minister.
Kate Forbes, the current finance secretary, implied that “more of the same” would deliver mediocrity, a strange charge given that she has had a hand in delivering exiting policy. Just to reinforce the point, she said that “continuity won’t cut it”.
But she didn’t leave it there, and in an astonishing attack on Humza Yousaf, suggested that, in his ministerial portfolios, he had a sort of reverse Midas touch. Her attack on him could easily have been made by any opposition party in the chamber.
In reply, Yousaf said that she wouldn’t stand up for the Holyrood parliament by refusing to challenge the UK Government’s Section 35 veto of gender recognition legislation. Then there were the little digs suggesting that Forbes was a socially conservative candidate that would drag the SNP to the right.
Voters who believe the current administration are not good for Scotland would have had that view reinforced tonight, though rather bizarrely that view would have been buttressed, not by unionist politicians, but by three candidates who to varying degrees have little confidence in one another.
The attacks by Forbes on Yousaf may reflect a candidate who knows that she has a gap to close and therefore had to take the debate to him, although given the directness of her observations, the question is whether SNP members warm to this style?
I thought both Forbes and Yousaf were confident in their delivery and composed under questioning, although on the issue of delivering independence, both offered different words which amounted to believing that a lot more campaigning needed to be done before it would become a reality.
Many in the wider ‘Yes’ movement will have held their heads in their hands listening to words which seemed to be kicking any immediate action down the road.
Regan is undoubtedly in tune with many independence supporters, although I suspect her view that if you win an election you should seek immediate negotiations on independence is far from a mainstream SNP view.
Sturgeon’s resignation has left the government denuded of any strategy. Regan at least had some fresh thinking with Forbes and Yousaf seemingly content to play a long game on the issue.
The problem with Regan’s strategy is the same with the defacto referendum line. Winning elections can be ignored by Westminster and they are every bit as likely to ignore a ‘declaration of independence’ as they are a mandate to request a legally binding plebiscite.
It was also clear that the existing coalition with the Scottish Greens is unlikely to survive if either Forbes or Regan win the election. Only Yousaf was unambiguous in his answers on the coalitions long term future.
There was not a lot in terms of new policy, and in a sense that was always going to be the case. Making pledges on the hoof in the heat of a TV debate is not a good template for governing and, for the most part, they were cagey in terms of committing to terribly much.
Was there a winner?
I would mark it as a score draw between Forbes and Yousaf, although I do think Forbes was slightly too critical of the administration in which she serves to have shifted SNP members behind her cause.
Indeed, it is possible that some will feel she was too combative and treated Yousaf like a political opponent than a colleague around the cabinet table.