JOANNA Cherry has hit out at the unfairness of the SNP’s leadership contest, saying the candidates had been “bounced” into the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon and were forced to come up with their policy packages 'on the hoof'.

The MP, who is backing Ash Regan in the battle, also claimed the “party machine” was backing Humza Yousaf.

It comes as one of the Health Secretary’s backers was sanctioned by the SNP’s National Secretary for using her party email in a bid to drum up support.

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Emma Harper messaged members in the South of Scotland detailing why Mr Yousaf was the “best person” to be First Minister. 

Under the rules of the contest, no member is allowed to use a party email “to seek to influence the votes of members in the election.” 

Last week a poll of 515 SNP members put Mr Yousaf ahead of rivals, with 31 per cent saying they would back him compated to 25% supporting Kate Forbes. 

Just 11% said they would give their first preference to Ms Regan.

Speaking to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland, Ms Cherry said it would be wrong to write off the ex-minister’s bid.

“She's making progress and I've heard a number of people say they've been switched on to her campaign after listening to her properly at the hustings.” 

The MP said Ms Rgan had shown “great courage and leadership” last year when she resigned as community safety minister over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. 

“Ash is on the left of the party socio-economically, which is more in line with my views. And she's got a hinterland beyond politics. And she's worked in business. She's worked in PR, and she's worked in policy with the Commonweal think tank. 

“And I think those are all things the party could benefit from. Also, she wants to bring the independence movement back together, and involve them in developing a strategy that will actually deliver independence. 

“And she wants to address the question of the SNPs internal governance and internal party democracy.”

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Ms Cherry said all three candidates faced a “pretty major” problem. 

“They've been bounced overnight into a very short campaign with no resources, no preparation, no backup team, and no facility or time to develop a policy programme. 

“Now, it's no secret that the party machine is behind Humza, and not behind Kate and Ash.”

“We've already had a couple of cases of people wrongfully using the party's internal mailing system to support Humza. 

“So my point is this, the party hasn't had a leadership campaign, a leadership election for nearly 20 years. This election should involve a detailed discussion of policy and strategy for the years going forward. “Most of the candidates have had no time to prepare their policy packages and are having to do so on the hoof.”

She said it was not fair on the candidates, the membership or the country.

“This is not an ideal way to be doing things, but we are where we are.”

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Confirming that she would give her second preference to Ms Forbes, the Edinburgh South West said this was despite the Finance Secretary bring to to the right of her on socio-economic policy. 

“I don't agree with her religious beliefs. But importantly, she hasn't given any indication that she's going to impose her religious beliefs through legislation on the rest of us. As a gay woman, if she was going to do that I couldn't give her my support.” 

Ms Cherry said she was "optimistic" for the party. 

The comments come ahead of tonight's leadership hustings in Dumfries.