Kate Forbes has accused Humza Yousaf of “desperate spin” in an SNP leadership television debate after he accused her of cosying up to big business and lurching to the right on economic policy.
Mr Yousaf attacked Ms Forbes over her plan to pause a controversial deposit return scheme for drinks containers while business concerns about the costs are addressed.
He argued this would let big businesses like Coca-Cola “off the hook” which he claimed were “responsible for around 90 per cent of the litter on our streets and our beaches”.
But a furious Ms Forbes carpeted him, pointing out she was responding to an audience member who had a small business and was worried the scheme would bankrupt it.
Their latest clash came in a BBC One Scotland debate broadcast the day after SNP members received their ballot papers to select Nicola Sturgeon’s successor. The winner will be announced on March 27.
All candidates promise independence within five years
All three candidates claimed they could achieve independence within five years if they become first minister, with Ms Forbes pointing to polls indicating she would be best placed to convince No voters.
Mr Yousaf, the Health Secretary and establishment favourite for the post, has attempted to paint Ms Forbes as Right-wing and himself as the Sturgeon continuity candidate.
However, the Finance Secretary gave him short shrift, saying: “Small businesses need support. They are the backbone of the Scottish economy.
“Support them – that has nothing to do with being Right-wing. That is about standing up for Scottish industry, Scottish business, Scottish jobs, and ultimately, those in poverty in Scotland but need our support.
“That is not a lurch to the Right. That is about representing the people of Scotland on the issues that matter to Scotland.”
Her tirade was met with applause from the audience at the Edinburgh debate, which consisted of both SNP supporters and people who backed other parties.
She was responding to audience member Leigh Payne, who runs a small craft spirit company and disclosed she was an SNP member.
SNP and Green ministers want to boost recycling rates by forcing buyers to pay an extra 20p deposit on single-use drinks containers, including cans and bottles, that would be refunded when returned.
Every outlet that sells takeaway drinks will also be required to act as a return collection point, with reverse vending machines outside supermarkets, community centres and other public places.
Although she said she backed measures to tackle climate change, Ms Payne asked the three candidates: “How can I support something that will cause my family so much money that we may have to close?”
Ms Forbes said small companies who had endured the turmoil of Brexit, then Covid and then the energy crisis needed some “breathing space” and she would apply this to all economic policies her government introduced.
‘You all lack acceptance of accountability’
However, the loudest applause was reserved for another audience member, who accused all three of a “total lack of acceptance of accountability”. He added: “All three of you are members of the SNP.
“The SNP have been in charge for decades and for you to sit here and tell me that it’s going to get better. Why haven’t you done it before? It’s ridiculous.”
Ms Forbes admitted that the SNP risked losing the trust of the Scottish people if it continued to disregard public opinion.
Ash Regan, the outsider in the race, cited Ms Sturgeon’s self-ID gender reforms as an example of the SNP pushing policies that voters did not support.
“No party can assume that it will maintain the trust of the people, and the confidence of the people, unless it ensures it is listening,” Ms Forbes said.
“I think that we have to improve our outcomes. We’ve got to reset and earn the trust of the people, because there are many other parties speaking into this space.”
In a section in which candidates faced questions from both the audience and fellow leadership contenders, Mr Yousaf, a former transport minister, admitted to “unacceptable” failings on ferries.
An Audit Scotland report, published on Tuesday, said that the bill for two as yet unfinished ferries that were supposed to be delivered in 2018 at a cost of £97 million had spiralled again, to almost £300 million.
“We’ve got to put our hands up,” Mr Yousaf said. “We’ve let our island communities down. These are not just nice to have, these ferries are lifelines for our island communities.
“It has not been, frankly, the government’s finest moment.”
Yousaf: SNP has shown leadership on gender reform
However, Mr Yousaf said that the SNP had shown “leadership” by pushing ahead with the controversial gender reforms.
Under questioning from Ms Regan who quit as a minister to vote against the policy, he again refused to say explicitly whether he believed Isla Bryson, the transgender double rapist initially placed in a female jail, was male or female.
In another escalation of the party’s civil war shortly before the debate, an SNP grandee accused Mr Yousaf of “taking credit for others’ work” while dodging responsibility for his own failings.
Mr Yousaf has sought to defend what his critics claim is a poor record in government by saying that as transport minister he delivered the Queensferry Crossing under budget, and in health, delivered the fastest Covid booster rollout in the UK.
However, Mr Yousaf only became transport minister in 2016, almost a decade after planning for the bridge over the Forth began and five years after building work started.
He was appointed to the health brief in May 2021 after the first vaccine programmes had already been set up.
Christine Grahame, an MSP since 1999 who is backing Ms Forbes, claimed Mr Yousaf was passing off the achievements of others as his own.
“Humza Yousaf took credit for the Queensferry Crossing, he was at the tail end of it,” Ms Grahame said. “He took credit for Covid, (former Health Secretary) Jeane Freeman was the dynamo who took us through the Covid crisis.
“What I’ve seen from Humza is taking credit for others’ work and not taking the blame for things he’s responsible for.
“His handling of the NHS has hardly been the best. Kate Forbes, when she was finance secretary, was on the ball. She’s respected in that parliament [Holyrood], across the chamber, in a way that Humza Yousaf is not.”