The three candidates to succeed Nicola Sturgeon clashed in a heated TV debate dominated by jibes over their records in government and Scottish independence.
The harshest exchanges on Tuesday evening came between Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, considered to be the two frontrunners for the top job, in a departure from the more collegiate party hustings that have taken place in the last week.
Ms Forbes attacked Mr Yousaf’s record in government – suggesting there would be a place for him in her cabinet but “maybe not at health” – while her record on social issues was scrutinised in a testy exchange.
“Humza, you’ve had a number of jobs in government,” she said in a portion of the STV debate which allowed for cross examination between candidates.
“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?”
Mr Yousaf said he “built new roads and railways”, delivered the Queensferry Crossing under budget, “extended protections for domestic abuse victims” and “delivered the fastest ever Covid booster programme”.
Asked if he is the “continuity candidate” and if that means he is the “no change candidate”, Mr Yousaf shot back: “If change means lurching to the right, Kate, if it means rolling back on progressive values, that’s not the right change”.
He told his rival her comments early in the campaign, when Ms Forbes said she would not have voted for same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP when the legislation passed, saw “many people, particularly from our LGBTQ community, say they wouldn’t vote for independence” if she is leader.
Mr Yousaf added: “Forget persuading ‘no’ voters, you can’t even keep ‘yes’ voters.”
Ms Forbes said she made a “solemn and honest pledge when it comes to upholding and defending the right of every Scot”.
The candidates clashed over their plans for how Scotland could become independent – with former community safety minister Ash Regan saying while the SNP had won the “moral mandate” for another referendum, it had been unable to persuade Westminster to give the go-ahead.
She said a referendum “is not the gold standard”, saying the SNP could use the ballot box at elections to try to win independence.
The UK Government, Mr Yousaf told the former minister, would “tell her where to go” under her plan for independence.
Ms Forbes said independence will only happen when a majority of Scots have been persuaded to leave the UK, while Mr Yousaf stressed the need to “build popular support”.
He added: “Consistent majority support for independence will mean those political obstacles put up by Westminster, they will be overcome.”
But Ms Regan accused her rivals of “going cap in hand to Westminster”, saying: “This hasn’t worked so far, why should it work now?”
Mr Yousaf hit back, telling her a majority of votes in an election would not bring Westminster to the table. “There is no common decency with the UK Government. If we get 50% plus one, they will somehow come round the negotiating table,” he said.
“We are talking about a government in the UK that literally sends refugees on planes to Rwanda. They are not going to sit down with us just because we win an election.”
But there were points of agreement, with Ms Regan and Mr Yousaf hitting out at the UK Government’s immigration plans and all three candidates committing to increase the Scottish Child Payment.
Mr Yousaf has previously announced he would look to increase the benefit, but said on Tuesday he would look to push it to £30 per week from £25 in his first budget if elected first minister.
Ms Regan said she would see “what more we could do on that”, while Ms Forbes suggested any increase would “have to reflect what inflation is at the time”.
The candidates were each asked if they would have their rivals for the job of SNP leader in their cabinet if they were first minister.
Mr Yousaf would only say he is “not being as presumptuous as imagining what roles I am going to start dishing out”.
Ms Regan said she would put the “best people” in her cabinet but was “extremely non-committal” about who would be in it.
Ms Forbes said she would “hope there would be roles for both” her rivals – although she stressed the need for a “new team”.
She said there is “room for Humza Yousaf” but “maybe not in health”.
Ms Regan said during the debate she had spoken on Tuesday to the leaders of all major independence parties, except for the Scottish Greens, about her plans for a constitutional convention, saying she left a message and had not had her call returned by the party which shares power with the SNP at Holyrood.