Humza Yousaf has said he would drop his legal challenge of the blocking of gender reforms if Scotland’s top law official said the government would lose.
Mr Yousaf has previously been steadfast in his support for fighting the UK Government in court over the Section 35 order issued in January to block the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill.
But in what is expected to be the final debate in the SNP leadership race – organised by Times Radio – Mr Yousaf appeared to temper his previous pledge.
“If you get an unequivocal answer from your Lord Advocate that says this cannot be won, you would do the responsible thing and not take that to court.”
But Mr Yousaf went on to say it was “about the starting principles”, which he said was not about the substance of the GRR Bill, but about protecting devolution.
Westminster, he claimed, would continue to use Section 35 of the Scotland Act to block legislation.
Kate Forbes has previously pledged to amend the legislation to ensure it cannot be blocked again by Westminster, saying on Tuesday: “The point when it comes to this legislation is that the legal advice really does matter, so I’m not spoiling for a fight for the sake of it.”
She added: “We can either go to court against legal advice and spending money that could be used elsewhere in a cost-of-living crisis, or we can take that legal advice and make the decision on the back of that.
“If there is no alternative to court, I’ll go to court, but I think there is an alternative to court.”
Ms Forbes went on to say she agrees with reforming the Gender Recognition Act, despite having previously said she would have voted against the Bill if she had not been on maternity leave.
Ash Regan, who last year resigned her ministerial position as a result of concerns over the Bill and subsequently became one of its fiercest critics in government, said that any court challenge would fail.
“I think that is something that you want to do for things where you have the public behind you.”
The issue of gender was the most contentious of the debate, with some members of the audience audibly expressing their displeasure with the candidates.
Referring to the case of transgender double rapist Isla Bryson, Mr Yousaf said it was right that Scottish Prison Service policy was changed in the wake of public backlash, barring any man with a history of violence against women from a women’s prison.
A member of the audience asked the candidate if they were comfortable with young people being taught about gender identity, to which Ms Regan and Ms Forbes expressed some concerns, while Mr Yousaf said he was comfortable for his children to be taught about the issue.
The candidates were also asked about author JK Rowling, who was pictured wearing a T-shirt last year that described Nicola Sturgeon as “destroyer of women’s rights” over her push to reform the Gender Recognition Act.
All three agreed that Ms Sturgeon has not destroyed women’s rights, but both Ms Forbes and Ms Regan described her as “brave”, while Mr Yousaf said he “takes exception” with the assertion.