HUMZA Yousaf has called SNP MP Joanna Cherry “desperate” after she claimed the “party machine” were backing his leadership campaign.

The MP for Edinburgh South West – who is supporting Ash Regan in the contest – made the claims after Robin McAlpine, former director of the pro-independence think tank Common Weal, questioned a number of decisions taken by SNP executives. 

He said that cutting the length of the contest to four weeks, forbidding candidates from spending more than £5000 on their campaigns and initially seeking to exclude the media from hustings were intended to favour Yousaf. 

But at a campaign trail event in Lanark on Monday, Yousaf hit back and said there was “no evidence” to back up Cherry’s accusation.

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He argued the reason he had strong backing from parliamentarians was because he was willing to stand up to Westminster’s block on gender reform legislation why Regan and Kate Forbes were not.

Asked what he made of Cherry’s comments, he told The National: “It’s pretty desperate stuff I have to say. There’s just no evidence of that.

“The fact I’ve got the most endorsements from parliamentarians, from councillors, from activists right across the country, is nothing to do with party machineries.

“It’s to do with the fact people want their next leader and first minister to build upon that progressive agenda.

The National: Environment minister Mairi McAllan supported Humza Yousaf on a campaign visit in LanarkEnvironment minister Mairi McAllan supported Humza Yousaf on a campaign visit in Lanark (Image: PA)

“They also want a first minister who stands up to Westminster’s veto on legislation passed by the majority of the Scottish Parliament. That’s something I’m willing to do and I’m the only candidate committed to doing that and that’s why I’m getting the support.”

Prominent Yousaf backer and former councillor Mhairi Hunter has since said she would alert SNP HQ after Cherry reposted a tweet from the Wings Over Scotland blog which accused Yousaf wanting to “trans [sic] gay and autistic kids, sterilise them and deprive them of sexual pleasure for their entire adult life”.

Cherry has since deleted the tweet and a representative for the MP insisted the post was made in error. 

Yousaf also said SNP MSP Emma Harper had made an “honest mistake” when she campaigned for him using her SNP email, breaking party rules in the process.

Harper has had her email privileges suspended as punishment for breaching party guidelines.

Yousaf said: “Anyone who knows Emma Harper, as I have, knows it was an honest mistake.

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“Emma Harper should not have done it and I understand she’s apologised to all the candidates involved and there’s been sanctions, but people who know Emma know it was an honest mistake and nothing more than that.”

The Health Secretary visited Clydesdale Housing Association on Monday to speak to people about his pledge to boost availability of affordable housing in rural areas.

Yousaf has said he wants to purchase or long lease empty properties and turn them into housing for key workers and those who need affordable housing in rural areas. He also wants to allow councils to increase council tax on second homes.

He said a £25 million fund will be set up to fund a pilot scheme with cash coming from the existing affordable housing budget.

Asked what the response had been like to his policy, he said: “It’s been positive. It’s got a positive reaction from every housing association I’ve spoken to but particularly those in rural Scotland.

“The plan to buy back empty properties and put them back in the social rented sector has been met with a really warm welcome, but also giving local authorities the power to increase council tax on second homes so that money is being reinvested back into affordable housing.

“That is my pledge and my pledge is not just to be a first minister for the central belt but to be a first minister for the whole of Scotland including rural Scotland.”

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Yousaf has also been pushed – along with Forbes and Regan – to “pick up the pace” on climate change by a coalition of more than 100 environmental organisations.

The groups collectively signed an open letter to all three candidates calling for them to commit to strong action on climate and nature, and to set out how they will deliver fast progress on looming targets.

They have asked for leadership contenders to champion climate justice and deliver an accelerated Just Transition, as well as standing against any new oil and gas licences in the North Sea.

Asked if how he would deliver on climate change and whether he would stand against new oil and gas licences, Yousaf replied: “I’m absolutely committed to the ambitious climate change targets [we have set] but I’m also committed to that Just Transition.

“The green sector has the ability to produce 77,000 jobs over the next couple of decades and I want to make sure we make the most of the opportunity. Not only that, I want to make sure communities benefit from the profit, that’s why I’ve said we would bring a 10% equity stake into any future leases of ScotWind.

“In terms of oil and gas, it’s not for the Scottish Government to approve licences, that’s for the UK Government.

“I think it’s right there’s a climate compatibility test and important of course that energy security is part of our thinking for the way forward, so I’ll be addressing more of those issues in the days and weeks to come. I’m looking forward to the hustings in Aberdeen later this week.

“I want to see us invest in renewables and make the most of the opportunity of the green sector.”

Yousaf added he would not wish to decelerate progress on just transition, as Regan has suggested.

He added: “I think if we can go quicker we should.

“We’ve got to make sure we take the people who are working in oil and gas sector with us. We don’t want people out of a job without the necessary skills in terms of green economy and technology so I’m going to make sure we commit ourselves to that Just Transition and let’s ensure we do that as quick as we possibly can.”