Kate Forbes, Scotland’s finance secretary, suffered a major setback in her bid to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as Scottish National party leader and first minister after key backers dropped their support over her stance on same-sex marriage.
Forbes, previously the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Sturgeon, was on Tuesday struggling to stave off a backlash among SNP colleagues after saying in media interviews she would have voted against the 2014 legalisation of gay marriage in Scotland.
The controversy has cast doubt on the deeply religious finance secretary’s chances of winning the race to replace Sturgeon, in which the SNP membership will choose a new party leader by March 27. On Tuesday, she also suggested it was “wrong” to have children out of wedlock.
Public finance minister Tom Arthur said equal marriage was among the Scottish parliament’s “greatest achievements” and one he would have been proud to vote for had he been an MSP in 2014.
“Consequently, I am unable to continue to support Kate’s campaign,” Arthur wrote on Twitter.
Clare Haughey, minister for children and young people, who had nominated Forbes for the SNP leadership, also dropped her support in a tweet.
Richard Lochhead, employment minister and another early Forbes backer, said the SNP could not have a leader who would vote against same-sex marriage.
In an interview with The Scotsman newspaper on Monday, Forbes, who was elected to the Scottish parliament in 2016, said she would not have supported the legalisation of equal marriage if she had been an MSP in 2014.
But she added she would have “respected and defended the democratic choice that was made” and that same-sex marriage was “a legal right now and I am a servant of democracy”.
Gerry Hassan, professor of social change at Glasgow Caledonian University, said Forbes’s statement showed a lack of experience and that he doubted that her campaign could recover.
“A whole host of politicians would have known to have the dexterity and skills to body-swerve that subject better, or present their views in a more generous, open way,” Hassan said.
Forbes’s socially conservative views are rooted in her membership of the Free Church of Scotland, which espouses highly traditional Protestant Christian views and is against gay marriage.
“I would have hoped that given Kate has so many friends, including myself, who are LGBTQ and hold her and her talents in such high regard, she might have tempered them or at least considered her response a little more carefully,” said Hannah Bardell, an SNP MP, in a tweet.
In an interview with Sky News on Tuesday, Forbes said that while she celebrated the lives of children brought into the world outside marriage, having such children was not in line with Free Church teachings.
“For me, it would be wrong according to my faith, but for you I have no idea what your faith is. So, in a free society you can do what you want,” she said.
Sturgeon moved the SNP in a liberal direction on social issues, and the Scottish parliament last year approved legislation to make it easier for trans people to secure official recognition of a change of gender.
Forbes said on Monday she would not have voted for the legislation in its current form, which has been blocked by the UK government.
Humza Yousaf, health secretary and Forbes’s rival in the SNP leadership contest, has cast himself as the continuity candidate, telling the BBC he would “always fight for the equal rights of others”.
Yousaf, a practising Muslim, has stressed that he is a supporter of equal marriage and contrasted his approach with that of Forbes. “What I don’t do is, I don’t use my faith as a basis of legislation,” he told LBC.
In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, Forbes dismissed the controversy over her remarks about gay marriage as a “storm in the Twittersphere”.
SNP members were “as diverse as the Scottish people”, she said, adding that her campaign aimed to ensure a pluralistic and tolerant society that respected freedom of speech.
“My approach is to defend to the hilt your right to live and love free of harassment and fear, in the hope you would afford me the same right as a person of faith,” Forbes said.