As the three SNP leadership hopefuls prepare to trade blows in another TV debate this evening, Kate Forbes is emerging as the most popular choice among Scots in the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon. 

According to a new Ipsos poll, which questioned over 1,500 Scots aged 16 and over between Monday and Tuesday this week, 32% believe the Scottish Finance Secretary would make the best First Minister. Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s Health Secretary is the favourite among 24% of those polled while Ash Regan, the former Scottish community safety minister, is trailing behind on 8%. 

That said, among SNP supporters, Yousaf and Forbes are neck and neck, on 33% and 32% respectively. And it is SNP members who will ultimately decide on the party’s next leader. 

The poll was carried out for Channel 4 News, who will broadcast this evening’s debate. 

This is the second TV debate of the leadership contest, and many SNP supporters will be hoping it is less vicious than the first. 

The bitter clashes between rivals during Tuesday’s televised STV debate exposed a party at war with itself. 

Forbes, who has declared herself the reset candidate, trashed her party’s record in government. The socially conservative finance minister launched an explosive attack on her rival Yousaf, who is considered the continuity candidate, claiming he had failed as transport minister, justice secretary and health chief. “More of the same is not a manifesto – it is an acceptance of mediocrity,” she declared. 

Yousaf, the so-called continuity candidate, responded by warning that a Kate Forbes win would result in a “lurch to the right.”

Meanwhile, Ash Regan, who resigned from her junior ministerial role in protest at Sturgeon’s gender recognition changes, joined Forbes in offering up some frank criticism of her own party. “The SNP has lost its way,” she declared. Notably, Yousaf is the only one of the three candidates who intends to challenge the Westminster block on Holyrood’s gender bill.

The damage that such fiery internal attacks could do to the SNP’s reputation – and its independence project – has concerned a number of Scottish nationalist politicians.  

Pete Wishart, Perthshire MP, warned that the SNP leadership debate “went too far,” and the party’s opponents would “lap this up”.

He’s not wrong. 

Opposition parties are gleeful.

Scottish Tory chairman Craig Hoy declared that the candidates were “torching” the SNP’s record in government, grateful no doubt for the helping hand. Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, jibed that the leadership hopefuls had “fought like Nats in a sack,” adding: “The only thing they agreed on was Independence and dividing the country all over again.” 

Tonight’s follow up debate comes a fresh poll shows support for independence and the SNP is tanking. 

According to Redfield and Wilton Strategies, which polled 1,050 people over the age of 16 between March 2 to 5, support for independence has fallen 7 points in the past three months to 42%, giving Scottish unionists a nine point lead of 51%. 

Opposition to an independence referendum within the next year has also grown – with 49% of voters saying they were against or strongly against it – a rise on the 43% who opposed it three months ago. 

Voters are also increasingly sceptical about the likelihood of the independence project realising its aims. When asked at the end of November how they expected indyref2 to pan out, 43% of voters said they thought Yes would win. By March 2023, this had plunged to just 30% with 49% saying they would expect a victory for the Union. 

This gloomy new polling for the SNP isn’t just down to Sturgeon’s resignation – and a mediocre set of candidates to replace her. On the contrary, the First Minister may be largely to blame. The poll revealed that Sturgeon’s approval rating among SNP voters has fallen by a giant 20 points to 48%.

That said, the party’s falling popularity is a stark reminder that whichever candidate wins this bitter leadership campaign has a mountain to climb. 

According to the same Redfield and Wilton Strategies polling, when Scots were asked who they would vote for if a general election were called tomorrow, 29% said their current voting intention was Labour, a rise from the 19% who voted Labour in the 2019 general election, while 22% said they would currently vote Conservative compared to the 25% who did in 2019. Crucially, 39% said the SNP – a considerable drop from the 45% who backed the SNP at the last general election. 

Sturgeon’s bright idea to turn the next election into a de facto referendum isn’t looking quite so bright after all. 

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