SNP leadership contest: Kate Forbes' confession of conservative views has not sunk her after all – Ian Swanson

Finance Secretary leads race in two polls
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It’s less than two weeks since Nicola Sturgeon announced she was stepping down, but already the contest to succeed her has seen plenty controversy. Despite the furore over her personal disapproval of gay marriage, Kate Forbes is still the preferred choice of SNP voters to become the next party leader and First Minister, according to two polls.

Commentators almost unanimously judged that Ms Forbes’ candid confession that she would not have voted in favour of same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP at the time had effectively destroyed her campaign. But it seems Nationalist supporters are not quite so ready to dismiss the Finance Secretary’s widely acknowledged talents. One of the polls found just five per cent of SNP voters thought a candidate’s faith or personal beliefs were important. The polls don’t necessarily reflect what the result of the contest will be because the new leader is chosen by SNP members rather than SNP voters.

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While Ms Forbes, a member of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, has been heavily criticised for her conservative social views, she has also won praise for her honesty. And although rival candidate Humza Yousaf was seen as the most likely beneficiary of any fall in support for Ms Forbes, the issue of gay marriage is not unproblematic for him.

Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are in a race which has already seen plenty controversyAsh Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are in a race which has already seen plenty controversy
Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are in a race which has already seen plenty controversy

He voted for the legislation at its first stage and has reiterated his support for it, but he was absent for the final vote on the Bill and former Cabinet minister Alex Neil claims Mr Yousaf was allowed to miss the vote after saying he was “under pressure from the mosque”. Mr Yousaf denies this.

The Health Secretary is the bookies’ favourite to win the three-way contest, but many say he is uninspiring and has a less than glittering record in his current job or his previous ones in charge of transport and justice. A poll on public views of the candidates found 31 per cent saying Ms Forbes had done a good job in government, with 17 per cent saying she did a bad job, giving her a positive approval rating of 14. Ash Regan was on three per cent but Mr Yousaf scored minus 16.

Ms Regan, the MSP for Edinburgh Eastern, who quit her ministerial role in protest at gender self-ID, is the self-confessed outsider in the leadership election, but she should not be written off. Her pitch, including stepping up co-operation with the wider Yes movement and arguing that a majority of votes and seats at any election should be taken as a mandate to start independence negotiations – will appeal to many rank-and-file SNP members.

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Her stance on gender reform – pledging to abandon the legal challenge to the UK Government's decision to block the Bill becoming law – is also likely to go down well. She has the backing of Edinburgh South West MP and former Westminster justice spokesperson Joanna Cherry.

If people change their minds about Ms Forbes, Ms Regan would be the natural alternative choice for many. And in any case, a lot of Forbes supporters are expected to give their second preference votes to Ms Regan and vice versa. The contest does not appear to be the foregone conclusion it was assumed to be immediately after Ms Forbes set out her personal views.

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