Analysis

SNP leadership: Yousaf, Forbes and Regan face off in final hustings - as vote on Sturgeon's successor looms

SNP leadership candidates Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes (Image: PA)SNP leadership candidates Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes (Image: PA)
SNP leadership candidates Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes (Image: PA) | PA
Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf went head to head in the last SNP leadership hustings, as Ash Regan continued to make up the numbers

It seems hard to believe that Nicola Sturgeon only announced her resignation as Scotland’s First Minister five weeks ago. It feels like five years.

The consequent SNP leadership battle has been long, brutal and damaging to the party’s reputation, at a time when it desperately needs to shore up support. A bitter row over membership numbers and a lack of transparency even brought down the chief executive, Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, and its widely respected media chief Murray Foote.

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So when the three candidates appeared in Edinburgh on Tuesday night for the final hustings, there was a sense of relief in the air that all this will soon be over - and an understandable look of fatigue in their demeanours.

It was notable that Kate Forbes arrived around half an hour before the Times Radio broadcast went on air, and immediately started to work the room, happily chatting to audience members and journalists. She had a look of confidence that suggests her team perhaps know more about her chances than the rest of us, ahead of Monday’s result.

Humza Yousaf appeared shortly after, and seemed similarly relaxed. He smiled and joked while having his microphone put on, but did not seem to be as keen to engage with the room - which, admittedly, was populated with more hacks, flacks and SpAds than "real people".

Ash Regan, the rank outsider, arrived with just minutes to go. She has struggled to keep pace with her more experienced (although younger) rivals, and seems to be going through the motions by this stage.

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Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much to learn from this last debate, as most of the candidates stuck largely to their well-worn scripts.

How did the candidates fare?

Forbes was polished and poised, and keen to distance herself from Nicola Sturgeon, saying she did not think the “groundwork has been done sufficiently on the case for independence”. She drew unintentional laughter from the small audience when she claimed her comments about Yousaf’s record in cabinet roles in one of the earlier TV debates had not been “personal” after host Aasmah Mir reminded her of them.

The finance secretary was predictably strong on the subject of tax, and argued vociferously against Yousaf’s proposal to introduce a new rate for higher earners, saying it would "overcomplicate" the system and reduce Scotland's overall tax take.

Yousaf, for his part, put in a decent performance. He did attract some shouts of disapproval from the audience when he claimed that the case of double rapist Isla Bryson had nothing to do with the SNP’s gender reforms, which he defended. Indeed, his “continuity” status has become a problem after the recent turmoil endured by his boss, and accusations of ineffective government.

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After some gentle clashes, it was notable that Yousaf went out of his way to compliment his rivals, especially Forbes, who he commended for campaigning just months after giving birth. One comment that caused some consternation in the room was when he referred to Westminster as a “foreign government”. But when asked if he would attend the King’s coronation in May if elected First Minister, he assuredly said that he would, despite being a republican - whereas the other two were less certain on this question.

Regan, for her part, has always seemed out of her depth in this contest. Almost a single-issue candidate, she has won support for her robust opposition to Sturgeon’s gender reforms, and it was on this subject where she was most confident. But on practically every other issue she came across as nervous and uncertain, and lacks the media-trained panache of Yousaf and Forbes, who both have far more experience in cabinet.

This was most notable when an audience member asked a question about how the candidates would heal divisions within Scotland, and Regan asked for more time to ponder it, as it wasn’t a question they’d been posed before. Forbes immediately jumped in with a confident - albeit anodyne - response. The gap in ability between the candidates was clear to see.

So, with a matter of days left for the 72,186 SNP members (now we know that figure) to cast their votes, it’s clear that we have a two-horse race for the keys to Bute House.

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Whoever does win will have an almighty mess to clear up, following Sturgeon’s mic drop and hasty exit. Before they can even consider divisions in Scottish society, the next First Minister will have to sort out the huge divisions in their own party.

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