Alex Salmond has admitted the SNP would use an “overwhelming” general election victory in Scotland to try to force a second independence referendum only two days after Nicola Sturgeon played down the link.
The former First Minister said the Nationalists would try to use a big win north of the border to “reinforce” their demand for another independence vote at a time of the Scottish Parliament’s choosing.
He argued that Theresa May’s refusal to allow another vote as soon as autumn next year will “crumble” even if the Prime Minster wins a Commons majority of 150 across the UK.
The Conservatives said Mr Salmond has “let the cat out of the bag” after Ms Sturgeon faced widespread mockery for arguing that the election campaign has nothing to do with independence.
But the First Minister posed during a campaign stop on Wednesday in Stirling sitting on a motorbike plastered with “Yes 2” stickers backing a second referendum.
An irritated Ms Sturgeon rejected as “ridiculous” claims she was avoiding talking about independence but continued to insist that Scotland having “strong voices” at Westminster was the main election issue.
The First Minister originally promised to tell MSPs what she intends to do next after the Scottish Parliament returned from its Easter break, only to state this week she will delay the announcement until after polling day on June 8.
But the Scottish Tory leader said Ms Sturgeon’s demand for another vote on the break-up of Britain was “the single biggest issue” facing Scots and they deserve to know what she intends to do before they cast their ballots.
Asked on Monday what she would say to Unionist voters fleeing her party for the Tories, Ms Sturgeon said the election “won’t decide whether or not Scotland becomes independent.”
She argued that she already has a mandate for another referendum from last year’s Holyrood election, when the SNP emerged as easily the largest party but lost its majority.
However, Mr Salmond told his LBC radio phone-in programme she would fight the election on a range of issues including independence.
The former First Minister said: “The mandate is in the parliament already – we’ve got the mandate – and the general election is to reinforce the right of the Scottish Parliament to decide when the time is right for another independence referendum.
“If you get that sort of overwhelming vote for the SNP, then I believe the Prime Minister’s position will crumble and I don’t care if she has got a majority of 100, 150 in Westminster. Political reality comes to the fore and that’s one of the realities that she’ll have to face.”
SNP and pro-independence Green MPs, who together have a majority at the Scottish Parliament, voted through a motion last month giving Ms Sturgeon the green light to start negotiations with Mrs May over getting the powers for another referendum.
Asked if Miss Sturgeon’s decision to postpone publication of a public consultation on the Referendum Bill until after the election indicated she was ‘a bit frit’, Mr Salmond said: “No, she is looking to get another election victory, which will indicate and support the right of the (Scottish) parliament to decide these things.
“They will know they are voting to support the right of the parliament to decide on the holding of a Scottish referendum.”
Miles Briggs, a Conservative MSP and Tory candidate for Edinburgh South West, said: “Mr Salmond has let the cat out of the bag.
“The SNP's objective in this election is to manufacture a case for independence - just as they have tried to do with Brexit. Nobody takes Nicola Sturgeon's claim otherwise seriously - not even Alex Salmond."
James Kelly, Scottish Labour's campaign manager, said: "At every election, Nicola Sturgeon tries to pretend it isn’t a vote about the SNP’s plans for a divisive second independence referendum.
“But she can’t stop Alex Salmond blundering in, and here he is admitting the SNP wants to use this election to pursue another referendum the country does not want or need."
Ms Sturgeon wants another referendum to be staged between autumn next year and spring 2019 bit Mrs May has refused to allow another independence vote until Brexit has bedded in and there is strong public support for a rerun.
In her letter to the Prime Minister requesting the legal powers for a vote, Ms Sturgeon claimed it was a question of “not if, but how” there would be another referendum but did not provide any further details.
Ms Davidson said the First Minister “could not have been clearer” when she told the Holyrood chamber on March 28 she would make a statement after the Easter break on her next steps but she has now gone back on her word.
The Scottish Tory leader said: “How can it be right that people should vote on June 8 without a clue what the First Minister plans to say on the single biggest issue facing Scotland come June 9?”
Speaking in Stirling, Ms Sturgeon said: “My opponents are ridiculous. They go from accusing me of talking about independence too much to accusing me of not talking about it enough.
"The issue at this election campaign is quite clear - how do we make sure we have strong voices arguing Scotland's corner at Westminster and also backing our Scottish Parliament.”