Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of treating Scots like “fools” as she finally admitted she will try and use SNP votes in the general election as a further mandate for a second independence referendum.
In an abrupt about-turn, the First Minister argued the Nationalists winning more seats and votes than any other party would strengthen her democratic case for another referendum even if they get less than half the popular vote.
Her official spokesman said Theresa May would have “no basis whatsoever” to continue refusing another independence vote if, as expected, the Tories win fewer Scottish seats and votes than the SNP.
But he also said that Ms Sturgeon will not drop her demand for a second referendum if the Unionist parties together poll more than the nationalist parties, arguing that the election would also be fought other issues.
Her declaration came only three days after she tried to play down the link between the election and her independence referendum as polls showed the SNP shedding thousands votes and up to 10 seats to the Tories.
But Unionist politicians said Alex Salmond “let the cat out of the bag” when he admitted on Wednesday that the SNP will try and use an “overwhelming” victory in Scotland to force Mrs May to back down over allowing a second referendum.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said Ms Sturgeon had been caught telling Scots a “real whopper” and was trying to “face both ways” on independence so as not to scare off Unionist voters.
She also highlighted the decision by two SNP MPs whose seats are under threat from the Tories to sign a pro-Brexit fishing pledge promising to oppose Scotland re-joining the hated Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
This is a condition of EU membership, which Ms Sturgeon supports for a separate Scotland. But Eilidh Whiteford, whose Banff and Buchan constituency includes the fishing ports of Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and Angus MP Mike Weir both signed the pledge.
Ms Davidson said: “Nicola Sturgeon is treating the electorate like fools. She thinks she can face both ways on fishing, the EU and independence, promising all things to all people.”
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, told First Minister’s Questions that the June 8 election for the SNP was “about independence – first, last and every priority.” He added: “Does the First Minister really think we are all buttoned up at the back?”
Asked on Monday what she would say to Unionist voters fleeing her party for the Conservatives, Ms Sturgeon said the election was not about independence and the overriding issue was having Scotland having “strong voices” at Westminster.
The First Minister argued 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.
But she told MSPs that her stance was “exactly the same” as Mr Salmond’s that “this election is an opportunity to determine who chooses Scotland’s future.”
She referred to a Holyrood vote last month in which SNP and Green MSPs combined to give her the green light to demand from Mrs May the powers to stage a second referendum, preferably between autumn next year and spring 2019.
Ms Sturgeon said Scots would be voting whether it is a “Tory Government at Westminster” or “this democratically-elected Scottish Parliament” that has the final say on another independence vote. She added there was “utter consistency” in the SNP’s ranks on the CFP.
Her official spokesman said: “There’s only going to be one winner this election in Scotland. With winning comes a democratic endorsement of the stance that a party adopts in an election.”
Pressed whether this meant a vote for the SNP was a vote for a second referendum, he said it was “no secret” that the First Minister and her party backed independence.
He said the election was about “reinforcing” the SNP mandate for a referendum but refused to say why an undecided voter who is opposed to holding one would cast their ballot for the Nationalists.
Arguing the Tories’ campaign was “entirely” focused on blocking an independence vote, he said: “If they fail to win this election, they have no basis whatsoever to continue their opposition to this government’s policy, endorsed by this parliament, of having an independence referendum.”
Asked if this would apply even if the Unionist parties together poll more votes than nationalist parties, he said the winner of the election would be the individual party that won the most seats and votes.