NICOLA Sturgeon still has the “determination” to lead Scotland and find a way to independence despite the “challenging” debate around gender recognition, Ian Blackford has said.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend, the former SNP Westminster leader described the row around the Gender Recognition Reform Bill as part of Scotland’s journey to a “more liberal country”.

Blackford, who stood down from his Westminster leader role at the end of last year, told listeners that the First Minister has had to deal with “amazing challenges” but continued to show “remarkable leadership”.

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He also called for the independence movement to ensure trans people and women’s rights are protected, then “get on about having that debate about what kind of country Scotland can become”.

“I think it has to be seen as part of a journey that Scotland has been on since the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament – a more liberal country, making sure that the rights of all minorities are protected,” the MP said.

“And in a way this is one of the last pieces of the jigsaw; making sure that those in the trans community have got the rights that they should expect to have. But these are challenging areas to legislate on and let’s be blunt, because you’ve got to make sure in amongst all of that that you protect the rights of others in particular women.”

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As host James Naughtie said the First Minister is “looking tired”, and asked if it was time for her to step aside, Blackford defended Sturgeon’s position.

Blackford said: “My goodness I think she’s shown remarkable leadership to come through all of that.

“All of us get tired from time to time don’t we, but the woman I know has still got that determination to lead the SNP, to lead the government and crucially to make sure that we pilot a way through to Scotland becoming an independent country and leading that independent Scottish Government when we get to that point as well.”

It came as a new poll suggested around four in 10 voters in Scotland think Sturgeon should step down amid media fury over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

There has also been uproar after transgender prisoner Bryson, who was convicted last month of raping two women while still a man known as Adam Graham, was initially housed in an all-female prison before being moved to the male estate.

A prison service review of the case found Bryson was kept in a segregated unit and “at no time … were any women in SPS care at risk of harm”.

Despite the Panelbase poll’s findings, more voters (45%) said Sturgeon should stay on until the next Holyrood election at least. A majority of Yes voters (72%), and SNP voters (76%) agreed.