SNP leadership to heat up as Yousaf, Forbes and Regan to go head-to-head in live debate

The race to replace Nicola Sturgeon has been "embarrassing" for SNP members who today begin to cast their votes, it has been claimed.

Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan will go head-to-head live on Sky News this evening as the poll opens for tens of thousands of Scottish National Party supporters.

The televised debate, hosted by Sky's Beth Rigby, will see the three candidates have their policies and personalities interrogated as they attempt to become Scotland's next first minister.

Kate Forbes, who has been on maternity leave, is currently the Finance Secretary, while Humza Yousaf oversees the Scottish NHS. Ms Regan quit Ms Sturgeon's government last year in a row over gender reforms.

This evening's broadcast, which is the third TV showdown the contenders have taken part in, comes after Mr Yousaf and Ms Forbes came to blows on STV over their own government's track record.

The Finance Secretary accused the health minister of being unfit to govern and questioned his competence live on television. It was the most extraordinary moment in the campaign so far.

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The bitter contest ramped up over the weekend when Ms Forbes accused the SNP hierarchy of "absolutely panicking" when veteran nationalist politician John Swinney publicly endorsed Mr Yousaf.

Ms Forbes' team claims it is a "cynical 11th hour intervention".

Ms Sturgeon's shock resignation as first minister came less than one month ago.

The 52-year-old said it had been "the very best job in the world" and one that has "sustained and inspired me in good times and in the toughest hours of my toughest days".

Ms Sturgeon has so far not backed any candidate vying to replace her.

Ahead of tonight's Sky News debate, youth members of the SNP have been reflecting on the contest so far.

Ewan Bell, a student at Glasgow university, said "It has been quite embarrassing for the party at points. We should be expecting candidates who are a lot more socially progressive."

Fellow member Hannah Watters said: "I can see a lot of people being put off by the chaos and infighting that has been happening quite prominently in this leadership election."

It comes after Ms Forbes told Sky News her faith meant it was "wrong" to have children outside of marriage. She also said her religion would have meant she could not have voted for gay marriage if she was a politician at the time of the historic vote.

The comments triggered enormous backlash and forced her to reset her campaign.

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Mr Yousaf, who criticised Ms Forbes' comments, was forced to face questions of why he was absent on the final, historic vote on equal marriage in 2014.

Speaking exclusively to Sky News, Scotland's former first minister Alex Salmond made an explosive intervention in the context by suggesting Mr Yousaf skipped the vote due to pressure from religious groups - something he denies.

The Sky News SNP debate airs at 7pm tonight live from Edinburgh.

Kate Forbes MSP, Ash Regan MSP and Humza Yousaf MSP will face questions from political editor Beth Rigby.

Viewers will be able to watch live and for free on Freeview channel 233, Sky channel 501, Virgin 603, BT 313, as well as on the Sky News YouTube channel and on the Sky News App and website.

There will also be further insight and analysis in the Politics Hub and on Sky News' social channels (TikTok, Instagram and Twitter) and podcasts.

The SNP will announce its new leader on 27 March.