NICOLA Sturgeon told Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross he’ll never reach “the dizzying heights of mediocrity” as he dug in over comments made by Kate Forbes.

During the cross-examination section of the STV debate on Tuesday, Forbes grilled Humza Yousaf on his record in government, causing fury amongst some party activists for her use of opposition attack lines.

The First Minister has insisted she didn’t watch the exchange between contenders Forbes, Yousaf, and Ash Regan, but did offer up advice to all three.

READ MORE: FMQs recap: Nicola Sturgeon gives advice to candidates after TV debate

At FMQs, Ross said the FM’s “ears must be burning” as the SNP candidates “torched the SNP’s record in government”.

The Scottish Tory leader quoted Forbes's attack lines on Yousaf, adding: “Does the First Minister applaud, as we do on this side of the chamber, her Finance Secretary’s honest assessment of the SNP's record in Government?”

In response, the FM reiterated that she hadn’t watched the debate, as she was travelling back from visiting the Glasgow Women’s Library where she had made a significant donation ahead of International Women’s Day.

Sturgeon added: “The only verdict on my government that really matters is the verdict from the people we serve, the people of Scotland.

“And that verdict has been pretty clear over the eight years of my leadership, winning no fewer than eight elections.”

Ross then set out how Forbes's comments have “sorted every Scottish Conservative leaflet going forward” and said there was more material they can use.

He added: “Kate Forbes said more of the same is not a manifesto, it’s an acceptance of mediocrity.

“The First Minister might have heard that from me, but did she really expect to hear that from her own Finance Secretary?”

The FM fired back: “I am very, very aware that for Douglas Ross mediocrity, of course, is a dizzy height that he's never come close to achieving.”

The chamber erupted into laughter and applause. Deputy FM John Swinney was heard laughing loudly and exclaiming “lovely”.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf hits back over Kate Forbes 'mediocrity' swipe

The FM added: “There’s no confusion whatsoever on where Douglas Ross is in terms of government or opposition.

“He’s in opposition now and he’s going to remain in opposition.”

Ross went on to say that when the First Minister had “handpicked” Forbes to be promoted to Finance Secretary in 2020, she had described her as having a “forensic grasp of detail”.

He added: “On this Government’s record she has got the detail bang on the money, hasn’t she?”

Sturgeon conceded she could not “grudge” her opponents from seeking to make political capital from the leadership contest – the first in the SNP for almost 20 years.

“We have had lots of Tory and Labour leaderships to enjoy over these years,” she added.

But she told the three candidates seeking to succeed her – Forbes, Yousaf and Regan – that winning the leadership contest would be the “easy part”.

She added: “Being First Minister is hard, it is tough, it is a massive responsibility.

“Whoever emerges in the position of the first minister, and is standing here three weeks today, has one overriding task – it is to govern and it is to serve in a way that inspires the people of Scotland to keep placing trust in us.”

READ MORE: Watch Kate Forbes and Ash Regan call out 'serial hustings attendees'

She claimed “every single one of the SNP politicians mentioned by Douglas Ross today have more popular and public approval than he does”.

Sturgeon said of the Tory leader: “Douglas Ross, I think, is the least popular elected leader in Scotland today.

“Perhaps if he spent a bit more time looking in the mirror, reflecting on the reasons for his party’s and his personal unpopularity and a bit less time thinking about the SNP, he might not be in the dire straits he is in right now.”