Left holding the jaikets as dividing lines drawn in SNP contest

Analysis of first TV debate featuring the three contenders to be the next First Minister.

Colin Mackay: Analysis of SNP leadership debate with Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan STV News

Almost every newspaper story about last night’s STV debate starts with “the gloves came off”. Let me tell you, it wasn’t just the gloves that came off, it was the jaikets too and I was left holding them.

There was a lot laid bare last night: the divisions in the SNP, the lack of a clear direction towards independence and some flaws in each of the candidates to be SNP leader and ultimately Scotland’s next First Minister.

I’m going to start with independence because that’s where I started last night.

One of the reasons behind Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation seems to me to be that she has run out of options on independence. She had pinned her hopes on another referendum this October, but her hopes were dashed by the Supreme Court ruling that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to hold one.

Despite winning the 2021 Holyrood election and forming a pro-independence majority Scottish Government with the Greens, the UK Government refuses to devolve the powers to hold a referendum and that position is not likely to change.

Theresa May said No, Boris Johnson said No, Liz Truss said No, Rishi Sunak says No and Sir Keir Starmer will also say No if he gets to Number 10.

So as far as I can see, there is no obvious mechanism available to any of the candidates to deliver independence. Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes still want a referendum following an election. Ash Regan described that as “wishy washy”. I’m not sure which of her opponents is wishy and which is washy, but neither of them seems to have much more of a clue than her.

Basically, it all comes down to ‘the voters will tell us when they are ready’.

So that takes me to the divisions in the SNP. Last night they were more apparent than I have seen since John Swinney resigned as leader in 2004.

They all attacked each other, but Kate Forbes’s attacks were the most notable and wide ranging. In her opening statement, she dismissed the mediocrity of the current leadership, which must have caused some gnashing of teeth for Sturgeon and Swinney as they watched from behind their sofas.

Her opening attack on Humza Yousaf as having failed at transport minister, justice minister and health minister – so how would he do any better as First Minister? – sounded like it was straight out of Douglas Ross’s attack lines for First Minister’s Questions.

Her dismissal of him at the end of the programme – when asked by Jean, an SNP member and STV viewer, what job each of the candidates would give their opponents if they won, Forbes said to Yousaf, “not health” – was all the more scathing for its off the cuff rather than rehearsed nature.

Each of the candidates had pre-planned attack lines. Yousaf attacked Forbes for never holding a public service delivery position in government and accused her of having “left us about £600m short” in budget negotiations with Sunak.

Regan admitted that she was the outsider candidate, claiming the SNP “has lost its way” in recent years. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing Regan in this leadership contest. She won’t win it, but this is a single transferable vote system among SNP members. Regan’s second preferences could still decide who will win the leadership.

After the debate, for all the brutal exchanges between Yousaf and Forbes, they chatted happily with each other on set, although Regan was away like a shot and I had to track her down to the STV car park to thank her for taking part.

I suppose the key question from last night is – how will it have played? I can tell you it played really well with journalists, and it played really well with Conservative and Labour politicians, but how will it play with SNP members?

They are the people with a vote in this contest. My suspicion is that attacks on each other and on the current leadership will not play too well with many of them, but we will see how they react to the candidates at the next official SNP hustings, in Johnstone Town Hall tonight.

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