Humza Yousaf has told Kate Forbes that the Scottish Tories are “rooting for you to win so that your words are on every single leaflet”, as the first UK-wide televised debate between SNP leadership contenders saw further clashes between the frontrunners, while polling for the Channel 4 hosts suggested the contest remains too close to call.
Referring to heated exchanges at first minister’s questions earlier on Thursday, when Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross jeered that finance secretary Forbes had “torched” the Scottish government’s record, Yousaf said: “What unfortunately happened in the last TV debate, Kate, was that you essentially gave our opponents so much ammunition to attack us with.”
Forbes’ description of the Scottish government’s record as “mediocre”, as well as direct attacks on Yousaf’s capabilities as health secretary during the campaign’s first televised debate on STV on Tuesday evening resulted in a furious backlash from SNP activists and politicians.
But Forbes, who initially took a more ameliorative approach, stating it was “my privilege” to serve in government alongside Yousaf, insisted that the candidates “need to have time and space for robust and frank exchanges”.
She added that, while she was proud of the Scottish government’s successes, “in an election contest people don’t want to hear we’re just going to do what we’ve always done”.
After host Krishnan Guru-Murthy probed all candidates on their religious and moral beliefs, Forbes accused Yousaf of “trying to poke holes and trying to erode the honest and solemn commitments I have made” when he challenged her over her commitment to buffer zones around abortion clinics.
Forbes, who repeatedly refused to say whether she thinks abortion is morally wrong, has said that she is willing to work with Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay on her member’s bill to introduce such zones to protect women and healthcare workers from anti-choice protesters, but that “balance” is required.
Asked by Yousaf whether that balance would apply to prayer vigils, for example, which are currently taking place outside clinics in Glasgow and Edinburgh during the Lent period, Forbes said: “It boils down to a question of honesty – does Humza accept my word when I say that I will uphold those legal protections and support buffer zones or not?”
A poll by Ipsos before the debate found that among SNP voters from the last Holyrood election, 33% said Yousaf would make the best first minister, while another 32% said the same of Forbes, but based on a relatively small sample of 582 people.
But with the Scottish public, the poll found that Forbes had an 8 point lead over Yousaf, with almost one in three (32%) placing her as the best first minister of the three prospective candidates, with 24% for Yousaf and 8% for Ash Regan, the third candidate and outsider in the contest.
After the debate, Yousaf told reporters he was “pleased there weren’t the same personal attacks” as there had been at Tuesday’s debate, adding that other candidates were “rolling back on trashing the record in government”.
“They obviously felt the brunt of our membership, who were pretty angry and pretty upset”.
He denied he had himself been on the attack on Thursday, insisting: “I was just making sure that they clarified their policies.”
But Forbes said: “Humza stated yesterday that he would be unremittingly positive. And I’m not sure how long that has lasted.”