A third of Scots think Kate Forbes is the best candidate to be Scotland’s next first minister – with a new poll indicating the Scottish Finance Secretary may be extending her lead over her rivals.

Pollsters at Panelbase asked Scots which of the three contenders running to succeed Nicola Sturgeon would be the best first minister – with 33% backing Ms Forbes, up by 10 points from a previous poll.

Meanwhile, some 18% backed Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf as the best candidate for first minister, with this up by three points.

Support for former community safety minister Ash Regan was also up by this amount to 10%, according to the poll, carried out for the pro-independence Scot Goes Pop blog.

When the 36% of people who did not express an opinion were excluded, the poll showed 53% backed Ms Forbes, ahead of 30% for Mr Yousaf and 17% for Ms Regan.

Panelbase also found Ms Forbes was the most popular of the three candidates among those who voted for independence in 2014 and those who voted for the SNP in both the 2019 Westminster election and the 2021 Scottish Parliament ballot.

It questioned 1,013 people across Scotland, with the research taking place between Tuesday March 7 and Friday March 10.

James Kelly, of Scot Goes Pop, said almost all of the interviews had been carried out after Tuesday – the day of the first TV debate on the leadership contest, where Ms Forbes challenged the record of her rival candidate Mr Yousaf.

Those clashes saw some within the SNP criticise Ms Forbes for her aggressive approach, saying she was damaging the party’s record in government.

Mr Kelly said: “At least as far as the general public is concerned, it appears Forbes’ robust approach in debating Humza Yousaf has paid very handsome dividends.”

The research was released at the same time as a separate poll revealed voters think Ms Forbes would perform best when dealing with key areas such as the NHS, the economy, education, crime, transport and the environment.

Three candidates are running to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as Scottish First Minister and SNP leader – Ash Regan (left) Humza Yousaf (centre) and Kate Forbes (right) (Jane Barlow/Andrew Milligan/PA)

The Survation poll, for public affairs consultancy Charlotte Street Partners and polling company The Diffley Partnership, found, though, that in all these areas between 41% and 50% of people did not know which of the three candidates would do the best job.

With 1,037 people questioned between Wednesday March 8 and Friday March 10,  the poll found support for Scottish independence was at 45% – the same level achieved in the 2014 referendum – with 53% backing staying in the UK.

This result did not change significantly regardless of who the next Scottish first minister will be.

Speaking about the research, Malcolm Robertson, founding partner at Charlotte Street Partners, said: “Kate Forbes clearly has greater appeal among the public at large on key issues such as health, education and the economy.

“What is fascinating in this election is whether SNP members vote for their next leader and Scotland’s first minister with that wider, long-term perspective or decide on the basis of other reasons.”

Mark Diffley, founder and director at The Diffley Partnership, said: “Our poll shows that voters currently have a more favourable perception of Kate Forbes on the key economic and public policy issues than of her two opponents in the current SNP leadership race.

“Significantly, it is particularly Conservative and Labour voters who give Kate Forbes higher favourability ratings.

“This may suggest that, although none of the candidates look able to shift the dial on party support or independence support immediately, it is the Finance Secretary who may be able to appeal to opposition party supporters in the longer term.”