Kate Forbes has defended brutally savaging the SNP leadership frontrunner’s record in office during an acrimonious TV debate, arguing the party had to be “honest” about its failings.
She faced a social media backlash from some senior party figures over a merciless attack on Humza Yousaf’s competence in his previous ministerial roles at transport and justice, and his current post as Health Secretary.
During increasingly acrimonious exchanges that laid bare the SNP civil war, she argued that continuing Nicola Sturgeon’s policy agenda would be “an acceptance of mediocrity” and stated she would move Mr Yousaf from health if she becomes first minister.
But an unrepentant Ms Forbes said the party needed someone with “guts” to speak the truth, not more of the same, and argued “robust” debate was required when “electing the next leader of Scotland”.
Speaking at a campaign stop the morning after the debate, she doubled down on her attack on Mr Yousaf by arguing that the focus must be on “which of us has the competence to actually deliver what members want and what the public needs right now”.
The Finance Secretary pointed out it had “worked both ways” during the STV debate, with Mr Yousaf accusing her of lurching to the right and of alienating independence supporters with her opposition to gay marriage.
But she insisted she could unite the party if she emerged victorious, likening the feud to a family row and insisting the three candidates would remain “friends” despite the personal nature of the attacks.
With Mr Yousaf racking up endorsements from SNP MSPs and ministers, Ms Forbes said they will have no choice but to swing behind her if party members elect her as leader.
Her intervention came after Pete Wishart, the SNP’s longest-serving MP, tweeted about the debate: “What a thoroughly dispiriting encounter this was. The whole party deserves so much better than this.”
Mhairi Hunter, a former long term constituency aide to Ms Sturgeon and a Yousaf supporter tweeted: “What the actual f— 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.”
But Joanna Cherry, the Edinburgh South West MP, said those lamenting “yellow on yellow action” should ask themselves how things came to this point.
Ms Cherry, who is supporting the third candidate, Ash Regan, for the leadership, tweeted: “The lid has been taken off years of stifled debate on policy and strategy. Yes, it doesn’t look pretty. But what’s the alternative? Another coronation?”
The Scottish Tories said the three candidates were “torching each other and their party’s record in government”, with the SNP now “openly at war with itself”.
The most fiery clashes occurred during a section of the debate in which each of the candidates was allowed to cross-examine the others on a subject of their choice.
In a section that went viral on social media, Ms Forbes told Mr Yousaf that when he was transport minister “the trains never ran on time” and as justice secretary “the police were strained to breaking point”.
‘It was about competence’
However, she reserved her harshest criticism for his current job as Health Secretary, saying he had delivered “record high waiting times”. In a brutal conclusion, she asked him: “What makes you think you could do a better job as First Minister?”
Asked if she regretted her approach, Ms Forbes refused to back down, saying: “This is an election contest to be the next first minister. And I think the public and SNP members want to see somebody who has got the guts to recognise what needs to change, and also recognises the fact that we need to have a plan to deliver.
“And last night was all about having the candour and the honesty, to say that more of the same isn’t what Scotland needs. We actually do need change, but secondly, it was about competence.”
She said the next first minister would be “taking on the Tories in Westminster” and argued they must “have the mettle and they need to have the courage to do that, and I think that was what was on display last night”.
Ms Forbes said the SNP was “big enough and brave enough to have that adult debate about what the future holds” and argued the public would be failed “if we cannot have that robust exchange” about “what’s not working”.
‘Setting fire to themselves’
In a direct warning to Mr Yousaf’s supporters at Holyrood that she would expect their loyalty if she wins, she said: “A leader will need to be backed by MSPs because I think it would be quite a profound question of democracy for SNP members if elected representatives didn’t follow the choice that they had made.”
Mr Yousaf hit back at Ms Forbes, telling the BBC’s Politics Live programme: “It does nobody any good, neither the party nor the (independence) movement nor the country to talk down a progressive track record of the SNP’s that has won us election after election after election.
“Other candidates may not be happy to stand on that, even though they’ve been in government for that time. I’m very proud to stand on that record.”
Craig Hoy, the Tory chairman, 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.”