Warring SNP candidates torched each other – and their party’s record – in STV debate
Two of the three First Minister and leadership candidates committed political suicide in the hour-long STV debate last night. Gender rebel Ash Regan came through the middle to take the lead with the bookies, but it was the battle between the finance and health secretaries that had everyone talking
By Bill Heaney
For First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this was a “hiding behind the couch” moment.
Ms Sturgeon must have been praying that she was already ensconced in her luxury retirement apartment in sunny Portugal.
The rest of the SNP establishment and party big beasts – if there were any, really – were left frothing at the mouth after Finance Secretary Kate Forbes dismantled their chosen candidate in the first televised leadership debate.
Ms Forbes, who had dropped a mighty clanger earlier in this contest when she told the world she would have gone by her Wee Free conscience and refused to vote with her SNP colleagues on same sex marriage legislation.
The finance secretary, who is currently on maternity leave from the role, did not hold back as she tore into SNP golden boy health minister Humza Yousaf’s record in government.
The finance secretary, who is currently on maternity leave from the role, came across as being in full agreement with the man they call Hapless Humza and Useless Yousaf.
During a cross-examination of each candidate, Ms Forbes highlighted Mr Yousaf’s failures as a government minister in the health, justice and transport roles. She said: “Humza, you’ve had a number of jobs in government.
“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?”
Ms Forbes had already attempted to distance herself from the current SNP cabinet, despite the fact that she has been holding one of the most senior roles in government since 2020 when she took over the finance job at short notice from Derek Mackay, he of the ferries fiasco.
What Wee Katie did then was to save her most bitter, barbed comment to the end when she was asked if either Mr Yousaf or Ash Regan would get a role in her cabinet if she won.
She responded there was a possibility that Humza Yousaf would, but “maybe not at health” in reference to the chaos he is currently presiding over in NHS Scotland.
About Ash Regan, who appears more poised, confident and forthright by the day, didn’t as much as get a nod in her direction from 32-year-old Cambridge graduate Forbes.
It was a spectacular attack on live TV which left Mr Yousaf’s fans raging and raised the hopes of Ash Regan, and left political commentators on all the channels open-mouthed.
On whether Scotland should keep the monarchy under independence, Ms Forbes said there were “bigger issues facing Scotland”.
She added: “I am pretty relaxed, I would see us as part of the Commonwealth.”
But both Mr Yousaf and Ms Regan declared themselves to be republicans.
Mr Yousaf said he would “keep the monarchy for a period of time” but hoped “an independent Scotland would be a republic in the future”.
Ms Regan said her preference would be to have an elected head of state.
And she said in the “new circumstances” after the death of the Queen last year it might be time for the SNP conference to debate if retaining the monarchy was still the right policy for the party “or whether we should move to a policy of having an elected head of state”.
Swift to put the boot into all three SNP candidates was the Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie who is deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, who wasn’t slow with the insults either.
Jackie Baillie, left, said: “After 15 years of SNP failure, Scotland is crying out for change. But all the SNP can offer Scotland is the politically illiterate Ash Regan, the social and economic conservative Kate Forbes and the dangerously incompetent Humza Yousaf.
“Frankly, I would not trust these candidates to run a bath let alone run a country. While the SNP sinks further into infighting and recriminations, Scottish Labour is facing the future.
“We will deliver the jobs that Scotland needs, end the constitutional wrangling and lock the Tories out of Downing Street.
“Scottish Labour is on the side of the people of Scotland – join us as we deliver the change Scotland needs.”
And many could not believe Ms Forbes decided to go on the offensive by questioning both Mr Yousaf’s own performance and the SNP in general. Nicola Sturgeon’s former office manager Mhairi Hunter was among those to complain.
The one-time Glasgow councillor said: “What the actual f**k is a serving Cabinet Secretary doing using opposition hit lines against a colleague? I did not have this on my bingo card I must say.”
Another former councillor and one-time rising star of the party Rosa Zambonini replied: “What worse is that so many of us worked so hard to get the snp to Government and keep them their. It’s a kick in the balls the hard working staff but more than that the activists”.
SNP policy chief Toni Giugliano, another Sturgeon favourite who failed miserably in his bid to wrest the Dumbarton constituency seat from Labour’s Jackie Baillie, said: “Disagree on policy or strategy by all means – but to undermine your own government, almost pretending you had nothing to do with it, is disgraceful and dishonest. Really poor advice and campaign management (not surprising). They’re about to find out how massively this has backfired.”
His tweet was supported by the likes of transport minister Jenny Gilruth, right, and John Nicolson MP. And Chris Law MP put his head above the parapet to say: “Trashing our record of government is not reflective on of the successes we have achieved as a party, nor is it going to attract more people to the SNP and independence. It just looks nasty, short and self serving. Tonight’s debate for two candidates was not their finest hour”.
The debate was a disaster for the SNP, with Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross saying all three “fought like Nats in a sack”.
Despite them having a wider audience of voters, all three chose to focus on how the party would push for Scexit with major issues like the cost-of-living crisis, health, housing and the economy given either a passing mention or ignored completely.
This morning, Scottish Tories accused the SNP leadership candidates have been accused of “torching each other and their party’s record in government” after last night’s brutal televised debate.
Scottish Conservative chairman Craig Hoy said the SNP was now “openly at war with itself” after any pretence of civility was abandoned when Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf traded insults in front of the STV cameras.
During an explosive cross-examination section, Kate Forbes hammered Humza Yousaf’s record as justice secretary, transport minister and health secretary.
In return, he claimed the finance secretary had allowed herself to be short-changed by the UK Government and poured scorn on her claims she’d woo ‘No’ voters to the independence cause, by pointing out she had managed to lose ‘Yes’ voters at the very outset with her comments on same-sex marriage.
Ash Regan attacked both her rivals and took a swipe at Nicola Sturgeon’s government in her opening statement, by insisting the SNP had “lost its way”.
Craig Hoy said: “We all knew the SNP was split down the middle but last night’s vicious debate laid bare the true scale of the mutual loathing between the different factions.
“The candidates spent the debate torching each other and their party’s record in government. Given they all are – or were – integral to that government, they were also, effectively, setting fire to themselves.
“Kate Forbes said she’d not have Humza Yousaf as health secretary if she was victorious, but it’s almost impossible to envisage either of them serving in the other’s cabinet, such was the extent of the vitriol they directed at each other.
“The SNP is openly at war with itself. But it’s ordinary Scots who are suffering as senior figures in the Scottish Government neglect the day job to kick lumps out of rival factions in their own party.
“But even when this brutal contest is over, they won’t be able to return to the people’s priorities, because it’s clear a shared obsession with pushing independence is the only thing they agree on.”
Humza Yousaf said Kate Forbes couldn’t even keep Yes voters. Yousaf said: ‘You say you’re the only candidate who can persuade people that voted no. In the first week of your campaign you had people who voted yes leave your campaign. MSP after MSP. You’ve had many people, from our LGBTQ community say they won’t vote for independence if you’re the leader. Forget persuading no voters, you can’t even keep yes voters on-side.’ (STV SNP Leaders debate, 7 March 2023, link).
Kate Forbes slammed Humza Yousaf’s record in government. Forbes said: ‘Well Humza you have had a number of jobs in Government. When you were a transport minister the trains were never on time, when you were justice minister the police were strained 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?’ (STV SNP Leaders debate, 7 March 2023, link).
Ash Regan admitted the SNP has lost its way. Regan said: ‘The SNP has lost its way. There’s been no progress on independence in the last few years despite the worst UK Governments of all time.’ (STV SNP Leaders debate, 7 March 2023, link).
Humza Yousaf said Kate Forbes short-changed Scotland by around £600 million. Forbes said: ‘It starts with our people, uniting the Yes movement is important but making the economic case matters more than anything else in this debate. And who better than somebody who has the experience of negotiating multi-million pound budgets, negotiating with the UK Government, and winning.’ Yousaf replied by saying ‘Well if I remember correctly, at the time you said the UK Government had short-changed us by £1 billion, you got £400 million out of them, you sold us about £600 million short… yeah so you left us a little bit short.’ (STV SNP Leaders debate, 7 March 2023, link).