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BLOG: Sturgeon's battle for indyref2 public opinion

First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon waves during the SNP Spring Conference Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

The SNP hoped to present its conference, which began in Aberdeen today, as being all about celebrating their achievements after 10 years in office, and setting out plans for the future on domestic issues like heath and education, with a series of ministerial announcements.

They would be proving to Scotland that they were "getting on with the day job" to counter the charge their opponents make that they were obsessed only with the constitution.

But Nicola Sturgeon's call for a second independence referendum and Theresa May's refusal to grant one - for now - made the SNP's pre-conference hopes impossible to realise.

Yes, there have been debates on the domestic issues for which Holyrood has responsibility, and there have been some ministerial announcements.

But talk of the constitution is the only subject on everyone's lips.

I've just interviewed Nicola Sturgeon and pressed her on her referendum demand which, with the help of the Greens, will next week be passed by the Scottish parliament.

Once Holyrood has backed the idea, then the Scottish government will formally request what is know as a 'section 30 order' from Westminster.

That means Westminster granting Holyrood the power to hold the second referendum, and be able to choose the timing.

This has to happen as the constitution is reserved to Westminster under the Scotland Act.

The problem is that Theresa May, and her Scottish Secretary David Mundell, have both said they won't even discuss the issue.

"Now is not the time", as the Prime Minister said several times.

The SNP had hoped the focus would be on their achievements in Scotland. Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

Where does that leave the First Minister?

There has been speculation that the SNP might go for the idea of a 'consultative referendum' - one that was not approved by Westminster.

While she said she was considering all her options, in my interview the First Minister twice used the phrase "legal, consensual and agreed" referendum.

Now, while the "other options" phrase does give some wriggle room, that appears to me to be a clear signal that Ms Sturgeon is very unlikely to go down that road.

Apart from anything else if it did not have Westminster approval, such a referendum could potentially be illegal, and could be challenged in the courts.

Or it might be so 'consultative' as to not have much impact.

Or if it is not seen as legal it might well be boycotted by those opposed to independence.

Difficult.

The First Minister will not have any problem rallying SNP supporters to the cause. Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images
The First Minister will not have any problem rallying SNP supporters to the cause. Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

Instead, the First Minister has a plan which rests on winning public support for her position.

She is pitching this as a tussle not between her and Theresa May, but between the Scottish parliament and Theresa May.

Ms Sturgeon is characterising Mrs May a Tory Prime minister who "rides roughshod" over Scotland or "lays down the law" to Scotland - two phrases she used to me.

By contrast she is selling herself not as one politician, but as the elected political leader of a parliament which represents the will of the Scottish people.

As things stand, and we have yet to hear Ms Sturgeon's conference speech - that comes tomorrow - the battle is for public opinion.

The First Minister and her party believe that even Scots who support the Union will be as outraged as they are at Mrs May's refusal to budge on a referendum.

On the other hand the Prime Minister, and the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, believe that they have what might be called the silent majority of Scots on their side.

The kind of people, they believe, who are committed to the UK or who simply don't want another independence referendum.

We can expect Ms Sturgeon not only to rally the SNP troops tomorrow - which won't be hard - but to try to rally the country to her cause.

The battle - perhaps that should be a new battle - for Scottish public opinion has begun.

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