Nicola Sturgeon is being urged by her colleagues to delay a second Scottish independence referendum until the early 2020s, and focus instead on Brexit and domestic policy.
The Scottish National party’s most senior figures at Westminster have advised the first minister to make Brexit, fighting austerity and promoting her programme for government her priorities after the party endured bruising losses at the general election.
Speaking on the eve of the Scottish National party’s annual conference, which starts in Glasgow on Sunday, Ian Blackford, its Westminster leader, said the central challenge for Sturgeon was dealing with the UK’s divorce from the EU and the Brexit transition period, which is expected to last beyond 2021.
Blackford said setting a target date for a second referendum was “putting the cart before the horse. We need to know what will happen with Brexit, what is going to be the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, but the second thing is we need to set out a vision of what kind of Scotland we expect to see.”
This year’s SNP conference is likely to be the most subdued in recent years after the party lost 21 of the 56 Westminster seats it had gained in its landslide election in 2015. Those who lost their seats included Alex Salmond, the party’s former leader and first minister, and Angus Robertson, its Westminster leader and one of the most dominant figures in the House of Commons.
Those losses, which represented a 33% fall in support from 2015, have sparked public and private dissent about the future of Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s powerful and long-serving chief executive who is partly blamed for those defeats.
Alongside Salmond, Murrell was responsible for the SNP’s transformation from a disunited opposition party into a government which has been in power for 10 years. Although there is no sign Murrell will leave his post, critics including Kenny Macaskill, the former Scottish justice secretary, suggest he should quit and the party’s leadership should be broadened out.
Sturgeon is facing a major financial challenge to pay for a series of popular election promises, including £500m extra for the NHS, higher spending on schools in deprived areas and lifting the cap on public sector pay.
Public sector unions staged a demonstration outside Holyrood on Saturday and the PCS civil service union, which has 8,000 members working for the Scottish government and its agencies, will launch a UK-wide ballot on industrial action on Monday.
Economists at the Fraser of Allander Institute estimate a 3% increase in Scottish public sector pay will cost £400m a year. This could force Derek Mackay, the Scottish finance secretary, to trigger an emergency borrowing clause in a deal with the Treasury to unlock £600m in extra funding.
Blackford said building a powerful economic case for independence had to happen before a second independence vote. “I think it’s very clear that people want us to demonstrate we’re a government that is worthy of the trust of the people of Scotland,” he said.
Pete Wishart, the SNP’s longest serving MP, said it was possible the EU talks could collapse next year, leading to a hard Brexit. That may leave Sturgeon with no choice but to call an independence vote immediately.
But the evidence so far was that there would be an orderly withdrawal, so the optimum time to stage that referendum would be after the Brexit transition period, he added. That would allow Sturgeon to seek a clear mandate from voters at the 2021 Holyrood election for a fresh independence vote.
Wishart said voters were more likely to realise independence was their best option once they had experienced the damage and disruption caused by Brexit, after the two-year transition period starting in 2019. “People will want to review their constitutional options and at that point the case for independence becomes compelling,” he said.
In spite of losing his seat after 16 years at Westminster, Robertson is expected to remain as deputy leader and is poised to take on a wider ambassadorial and organisational role for the party, galvanising its large membership.
Unlike other parties, SNP rules allow any ordinary member to hold a leadership position. Robertson is expected to give a 10-minute speech at conference on Tuesday before introducing Sturgeon for her keynote address.
Speculation is growing that Robertson is regarded as an SNP leader-in-waiting and party sources confirm he is being primed for a seat at Holyrood at the next election or earlier if a byelection is called.
Sturgeon’s gamble that the Brexit vote last year would trigger an upsurge in support for Scottish independence, particularly among voters who opposed independence in 2014, fuelled an unexpectedly fierce backlash in June’s election.
That forced her to shelve her demands in March that Theresa May, the UK prime minister, should stage a new referendum by spring 2019. Sturgeon said after the election she would update MSPs on her plans in late 2018, but in an interview last month with the New Statesman she implied she no longer had a specific date in mind.
“Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it … [I’m] saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale,” she said.