The candidates vying to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s First Minister traded bruising blows as they clashed in their first televised debate.
SNP leadership hopefuls Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan faced off on STV on Tuesday night.
In the most brutal exchange, finance secretary Forbes trashed the health secretary’s record in government.
Forbes said the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon was about “competence” as she targeted the various jobs Yousaf had held in office.
“You were a transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister we’ve got record high waiting times – what makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?”
Yousaf said that while holding probably the “three toughest jobs in government” he had “built new roads and railways”, delivered the Queensferry Crossing under budget, “extended protections for domestic abuse victims”, “delivered the fastest ever Covid booster programme”, and prevented strikes in Scotland’s NHS.
Forbes asked him if he was the “no change candidate” after he previously described himself as the “continuity candidate”.
Yousaf hit back: “If change means lurching to the right, Kate, if it means rolling back on progressive values, I don’t think that’s good change”.
Forbes said “more of the same” in the SNP “is an acceptance of mediocrity”.
“It’s time for change, continuity won’t cut it – tonight, I offer a new start for Scotland,” she said.
Insisting she was the “only leader who can reach out and persuade No voters to support independence”, she said she would “get it right on the economy” by focussing on proposals that were about “prosperity with a purpose”.
“Forget persuading No voters, you can’t even keep Yes voters on side”Yousaf cross-examines Forbes
But Yousaf said that Forbes lost people who voted Yes in the first week of her campaign.
“Many people, particularly from our LGBTQ community, say they won’t vote for independence if you were the leader,” he said.
“Forget persuading No voters, you can’t even keep Yes voters on side.”
Forbes stressed she had made a “solemn and honest pledge when it comes to upholding and defending the right of every Scot in Scotland”.
Yousaf said that if Forbes became first minister, her first act in office would be to “cave in” to Westminster allowing the UK Government to block gender recognition reforms.
Forbes stressed legal advice would be key, saying she needed to “understand the likelihood of a victory” in any court challenge to the UK Government’s use of a section 35 order, which stopped the Bill passed by Holyrood from gaining royal assent.
Yousaf pledged to go to court to overturn the order but Forbes said this should be the last option and not a first move.
“Unlike you, I am not spoiling for a fight regardless of the legal advice,” Forbes told Yousaf.
But the health secretary snapped back saying Forbes’ opposition to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill was “clouding her judgment”.
Regan has said she would not challenge the UK Government’s move to block the legislation raising questions about the SNP’s coalition with the Greens – who are seen as holding a hardline on gender reform.
Asked if she would scrap the deal, the former minister said: “I think we need to review whether that arrangement has been working for the people of Scotland.”
Yousaf responded: “The very first act you would do as the first minister would be to dissolve the pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament,” he said, “How on earth can you call yourself a unifier?”
Co-leader of the Scottish Greens Patrick Harvie said that Regan’s claim that she had she spoken to all the pro-indy party leaders on Tuesday and they were “excited” by her plans, was “simply, plainly false”.
“The Scottish Greens are not endorsing a candidate – this is an election for SNP members,” Harvie wrote on Twitter.
“But those voting have a right to know that this claim by a candidate on national TV is simply, plainly false.”
Responding from Regan’s Twitter account, a spokesperson said: “All parties were called today, including the @scottishgreens – message left, still awaiting a call back. Everyone else enthusiastic.”
The health secretary described the deal as “vital”, while Forbes said it would be for the Greens to decide if they were happy with her approach if she won the leadership contest.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie told STV News’ Westminster correspondent Kathryn Samson that the debate was “comedy gold, if it wasn’t so serious”.
Baillie said: “What we’ve seen is three candidates for the SNP leadership destroying their own party’s record in office and actually attempting to destroy each other – it has been unedifying if you are a member of the SNP.
“Certainly, for the rest of us in the opposition we are just astonished at how bitter and vitriolic and divisive this debate has been.”
How could Scotland become independent?
The candidates clashed over their plans for how Scotland could become independent – with Regan saying that the SNP had been unable to persuade Westminster despite having the “moral mandate” for another referendum.
She said that the party shouldn’t be “begging” the UK Government for further referendums – which are “not the gold standard”.
Regan said the SNP should use the general election ballot box to win independence.
Forbes said independence would happen once a majority of Scots had been persuaded to leave the UK.
Yousaf said “consistent majority support for independence” would means the “political obstacles put up by Westminster” would be “overcome”.
Regan accused her rivals of “going cap in hand to Westminster”, saying: “This hasn’t worked so far, why should it work now?”
Yousaf hit back, telling her a majority of votes in an election would not bring Westminster to the table. “There is no common decency with the UK Government, if we get 50% plus one they will somehow come round the negotiating table,” he said.
“We are talking about a government in the UK that literally sends refugees on planes to Rwanda. They are not going to sit down with us just because we win an election.”
You can watch the whole debate on the STV Player