Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of attempting to “dupe” voters over her drive for independence after the SNP scrapped plans to include a reference to a second referendum on ballot papers.
The SNP had sought approval for two slogans making reference to “IndyRef2” to appear alongside the party name on voting slips for the Holyrood election, suggesting that Ms Sturgeon planned to make her push for a new referendum the central message of her election campaign.
However, when the first postal ballots arrived on Wednesday, the IndyRef2 references had been dumped and replaced with “Nicola Sturgeon for SNP First Minister”.
The Scottish Tories said the move to abandon the IndyRef2 description was a tacit admission that the SNP's independence policy is a turn-off for voters and amounted to an attempt to hide it from the public.
Ms Sturgeon will on Thursday unveil the SNP manifesto, which will include a commitment to holding another referendum on independence if there is a pro-independence majority at Holyrood after May’s election.
However, in a major announcement ahead of the launch event, the party chose to highlight a commitment to boost NHS spending by £2.5 billion within five years rather than focus on the constitution.
The commitment came after the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that health spending in England has increased more than three times faster than in Scotland over the past decade.
Watch: Scottish leaders face off in second TV debate
Under election rules, parties are able to print a pre-approved slogan alongside their names and logos on regional ballot papers, where voters choose a party rather than a candidate. The SNP had registered “Vote SNP for IndyRef2” and “Both Votes SNP for IndyRef2” for possible use.
Parties are entitled to use different slogans in electoral regions, but the SNP opted against the IndyRef2 slogan even in Glasgow, which voted in favour of independence in 2014.
Ms Sturgeon has said she wants to hold a new independence referendum by 2023, however, a string of opinion polls have shown most voters believe that issues such as the economy and education should be the main priority.
Dean Lockhart, constitution spokesperson for the Scottish Tories, said: “The SNP clearly think they can dupe voters by pretending that they are not planning for another vote on independence.
“After initially planning to put this on the ballot, they’ve clearly realised how the people of Scotland simply don’t want another divisive referendum as we recover from the pandemic.”
Polls currently suggest that winning an overall majority for the SNP is in the balance. However, a majority of pro-independence MSPs are highly likely to be returned due to the Scottish Greens, surveys suggest
Alex Salmond’s Alba Party also attacked Ms Sturgeon after she ditched the IndyRef2 slogan, claiming it showed she was “backsliding” over her commitment to leaving the UK.
"Given the lack of urgency shown by Nicola Sturgeon in this campaign towards independence it is hardly surprising that she has now ditched IndyRef2 on the ballot paper,” Kenny MacAskill, the MP who defected from the SNP and is now standing as an Alba Holyrood candidate, said.
“This is a wake up call for SNP voters and Independence supporters who will look on in dismay as the SNP backslide on independence.”
Watch: Boris Johnson and Scotland
In Thursday’s manifesto launch, the SNP will attempt to reassure voters who have been impressed by Ms Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic but are not fully sold on independence.
Strategists at Holyrood believe this group, and particularly female voters, will be key in deciding whether or not the SNP claim a majority.
The commitment to spend an additional £2.5 billion per year on the NHS by the end of the next parliament – a rise of at least 20 per cent – will be part of a package Ms Sturgeon will attempt to sell as a “programme for sustained economic recovery and job-creation”.
She is expected to say: "As we recover, we have the opportunity to reimagine our country. Not to return just to how things were – but to build a better nation.
"If the SNP is re-elected we will use our experience to undertake a full-scale post-pandemic remobilisation of the NHS.”
She will also promise increases in spending to mental health services of at least 25 per cent and expand on plans to develop a National Care Service, which she will compare in scale to the establishment of the NHS following the “trauma” of the Second World War.
“The National Care Service will improve standards, ensure enhanced pay and conditions for workers and provide better support for unpaid carers,” Ms Sturgeon will say.
Watch: Why life has been ‘extremely challenging’ on the Scottish islands with just 70 COVID cases