The leading candidates to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National party have made their final pitches ahead of the contest ending on Monday, offering a choice between continuity with the outgoing first minister or a shift aimed at reinvigorating its stalled independence campaign.
The winner is due to be announced in Edinburgh on Monday afternoon, ending a bitter contest that exposed deep divisions within the SNP over its strategy on independence and other issues, including a controversial plan to reform laws on gender recognition.
The race was also thrown into disarray when the party was forced to admit that it had 30,000 fewer members than it had previously claimed after two of the candidates questioned the integrity of the contest. It led to the resignation of the SNP chief executive, Peter Murrell — who is also Sturgeon’s husband.
The candidates — Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan — spent much of the six-week campaign criticising each other’s records, a marked change from the tight discipline of Sturgeon’s eight-year tenure.
Forbes, the 32-year old finance secretary, said on Sunday she could break the “constant constitutional loop” by winning over new supporters of the independence cause that will give the UK government no choice but to allow another referendum.
An attempt by Sturgeon to force a rerun of the 2014 vote in which Scots voted 55-45 per cent to stay in the union was thwarted by Westminster’s refusal to grant permission for a new poll. Her critics said failure to break the stalemate in which Scots were divided roughly in half on the issue made it easier for London to ignore her demands for a second vote.
“I’m the only candidate who can reach across the political divide and persuade new voters to think again,” said Forbes in a message posted on Twitter.
However, the deeply religious candidate’s campaign was almost derailed when she disclosed that she would have voted against a 2014 law that legalised same-sex marriage and critics say her conservative social views do not reflect those of the party.
Yousaf, the SNP health secretary, remains the bookmakers’ favourite and was the only candidate present during Sturgeon’s final parliamentary appearance as first minister on Thursday. The 37-year old has presented himself as the candidate who would preserve the first minister’s legacy of progressive social and economic policies.
“At this important juncture in the history of our party, and the wider independence movement, it is so important that we don’t choose to throw away our winning strategy and the progressive values that have become the hallmark of the SNP,” he said.
Regan, the 49-year old former community safety minister who resigned in opposition to Sturgeon’s gender recognition reforms, is regarded as a rank outsider and has the public backing of just one elected SNP parliamentarian. She believes the party “lost its way” under Sturgeon and tried to appeal to members frustrated by the other candidates’ gradualist approach to gaining independence.
The new leader will be sworn in as first minister on Wednesday after a parliamentary vote in Holyrood on Tuesday.