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21 February 2023

Is Kate Forbes’s SNP leadership campaign over already?

The finance secretary’s declaration that she would have voted against equal marriage has dismayed her supporters.

By Chris Deerin

Where does Kate Forbes’s bid to become SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister go now? Day one did not, to put it mildly, go well.

Forbes, a conservative Christian, knew the questions were coming, but that didn’t make the experience any more comfortable. She confirmed that she would have voted against equal marriage, which was legalised by the Scottish Parliament in 2014, before Forbes, 32, had become and MSP. At this point, were she a more calculating sort, she might have added that she was now perfectly comfortable with the change – plenty of its one-time opponents have made that leap. Instead, she doubled down, telling an interviewer, “Marriage being between a man and a woman, that is what I practise.”

The sound of supporters’ heads smacking their desks could be heard in John O’Groats. There was, surely, a better form of words that might have been found. Of course she wouldn’t attempt to reverse the legislation, but that now barely matters. Where some saw personal integrity – for what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? – accusations of homophobia flooded social media. This morning four of Forbes’s early MSP supporters, Richard Lochhead, Clare Haughey, Gillian Martin and Tom Arthur, announced they would no longer back her.

[See also: Kate Forbes emerges as early favourite for SNP leadership]

This is good news, therefore, for her main competitor, Humza Yousaf, whose own campaign launch was pretty uninspiring, if at least not self-sabotaged. Is there much to the Scottish health secretary? I genuinely find it hard to tell. I’m told he’s a “lovely guy”, which is nice, but is he competent? Is he up to it? And if he is these things, shouldn’t that be clearer by now? He boasts of having been given “tough jobs” by Nicola Sturgeon, but as justice secretary was responsible for the ludicrous Hate Crime Bill, which still hasn’t been enacted, while his shaky handling of the NHS crisis hardly inspires confidence in his abilities.

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Nevertheless, there will be SNP members now thinking Yousaf is the safe option. He has the party machine behind him – there are persistent rumours that John Swinney, Sturgeon’s deputy, will issue a public endorsement – and is presenting himself as the continuity candidate. “The old guard simply aren’t ready to let go,” one senior Nat told me yesterday. This should count against Yousaf. What will he continue? A peripheral and performative progressive agenda? The decline in educational standards? Basic economic ignorance? An allergy to desperately needed health reform? After 16 years of government by the SNP’s veteran indy guerillas, the last thing Scotland needs is more of the same.

Yousaf also appears ready to continue Sturgeon’s fight for her catastrophic gender reform bill, vetoed by Westminster, by pursuing it all the way to the Supreme Court. This would ensure his early months as first minister would be dogged by the same controversy that hampered Sturgeon’s final months. It would tie him to a policy that is unpopular with voters. And he would lose. But do what you’re told, Humza.

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It’s hard to imagine that there are many in the SNP who don’t know that Forbes would simply be better at the daily task of being first minister. She would be far more attractive to the floating voters the SNP needs to boost support for independence and to hold off what looks like an imminent Labour comeback. The integrity that is causing her problems on the religious front also applies in a more positive way to how she approaches the mechanics of politics and policy – tackling real problems in effective and constructive ways.

Yesterday, as this row unfolded, a smiling Sturgeon launched the findings of the Stewart Review on how to ensure female entrepreneurs can access more capital in order to build their businesses. It found that women make up only one in five of Scotland’s entrepreneurs and, worse, that their start-ups received only 2 per cent of overall investment capital over the past five years. The review, which is rich in proposed solutions, was established by Forbes before she went on maternity leave. I wonder whether Sturgeon mentioned that.

Is the Forbes campaign really over before it has begun? Perhaps. But there are several weeks to go and her faith, which admittedly seems unusually deep and ideological, is arguably her only real political weak spot. Soon those awkward questions will exhaust themselves and the debate will move on to other territory.

At some point the candidates will have to talk about economics and public service reform. They will have to address how they would fix Scotland’s increasingly tatty, shuttered cities and towns, and provide a vision of the future that amounts to more than just relentlessly haranguing the population about breaking up the UK. Who will be more convincing on the stuff that matters most to the vast swathe of Scots voters? Does the SNP membership care, or has it swallowed too much of the progressive moon juice? Is it too used to following orders from the higher-ups?

If the Forbes campaign is to survive, she needs to make it to the end of this week relatively intact, then enter next week having changed the conversation. Perhaps this is doable, perhaps it isn’t. But Yousaf also has questions to answer. As Forbes’s treasured Bible says, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Read more:

Could Kate Forbes yet defy the SNP machine and win the leadership?

What is the most important lesson from Nicola Sturgeon’s time in power?

Three cheers for Nicola Sturgeon for knowing when to walk away

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