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Will Nicola Sturgeon call for a second Scottish independence referendum before the end of Spring?

Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in Westminster. Credit: PA

Scotland is stuck between referendums.

It is the most Remain-leaning part of the UK with 62% voting to stay in the EU, and polls show this nation is just as in love with staying in the European Union now.

Yet Scotland voted 55% to Remain in another referendum less than two years before that.

In the independence referendum of September 18, 2014, the majority said they wanted to stay in the United Kingdom. And, so the argument follows, if Scotland wants to be part of the UK, Scotland must accept the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Cue the big question: does Scotland still want to be part of a UK that’s leaving the EU? Which of these two unions is more important?

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon talks with SNP MPs in Westminster Hall. Credit: PA

Scotland’s First Minister has been quite explicit: she intends to have a second independence referendum because, in her words, "Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against its will."

At the last SNP conference in October, she told me: "It’s just a question of the timing" - and, crucially, she says there will be an 'indyref2' regardless of the Brexit deal.

Many believed the defeat of May’s deal would be a catalyst for Nicola Sturgeon to push the button on that second independence referendum.

Instead, it prompted Sturgeon to head to Westminster to drum up support for another referendum on EU membership.

She is making a few clear demands on the Prime Minister:extend article 50 to remove the 29 March deadline and buy the UK more time and space; stop pursuing the same path of going to Brussels to ask for concessions that are not granted before returning to Westminster only to be sent back to Brussels (what is it they say about those who keep doing the same things and expecting different results?); and finally, offer the UK another Brexit referendum which must have Remain on the ballot paper.

There is, curiously, not one mention of independence for Scotland among these demands.

Independence supporters outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in 2017. Credit: PA

There are a few reasons for this, but at the forefront right now is the fact Nicola Sturgeon has suddenly become deeply embroiled in an ugly dispute with her predecessor as First Minister, Alex Salmond.

The pair were previously as thick as thieves: Salmond the long-term mentor; Sturgeon the pupil-turned-master.

Now we have Sturgeon’s spokespeople accusing Salmond’s spokespeople of launching a smear campaign against her, and Salmond all but accusing Sturgeon’s camp of instigating leaks against him.

This public falling out stems from a botched Scottish Government investigation into allegations from two women of sexual harassment against Alex Salmond.

He took the Scottish Government to court, he won, and it will now cost the tax payer in Scotland £500,000. The fallout, however, has cost Sturgeon her Teflon-like ability to steer well clear of allegations of wrongdoing and scandal.

The current First Minister has already referred herself to a panel to see if she breached the ministerial code over meetings she held with Salmond while he was under investigation (meetings she says were private, but which opposition parties say should have been recorded and minuted as official government business because the First Minister’s Chief of Staff, Liz Lloyd, was present).

Sturgeon will also be under the spotlight in a parliamentary inquiry looking into the whole sorry mess of a Scottish Government investigation that was found to be "unlawful" and "tainted with apparent bias" against Alex Salmond.

Alex Salmond took the Scottish Government to court and won. Credit: PA

The Scottish independence movement is somewhat paralysed while two of its most influence figures are at each others throats.

Not to mention the First Minister will first want to deal the two rather degrading investigations into her conduct before launching into a charm offensive to convince the Scottish people to trust her on her the big arguments for independence.

That is why the response from Scotland to Theresa May’s crushing defeat has been one of indignation and condemnation, but rather timid on the independence demands. At least for now.

There is another interesting element to the delay, though. There are not-so-quiet whispers within Scotland’s independence movement that Nicola Sturgeon isn’t actually as committed to indyref2 as the hardliners in her party, such as her predecessor, Alex Salmond.

Alex Salmond was Nicola Sturgeon's mentor for decades. Credit: PA

Word is she is resisting pressure from the old guard to push Theresa May harder for a second vote while the Scottish Government still has its mandate, while the SNP can (with help from the Greens) still command an independence majority, and while the UK Government is distracted with its own fight for independence from Europe.

I have heard some of the malcontents within Scotland’s independence movement grumbling about the hesitation of their leader, which they just cannot understand at this stage.

Those who are itching to go for the UK’s jugular right now are suspicious Nicola Sturgeon is perhaps becoming comfortable in Bute House, and that she is quite content to carry on as a First Minister of Scotland who enjoys an easy lead over her opponents and who does not share their desire for her to rock that luxury boat too much.

To be clear: that idea is folly. Sturgeon has been committed to campaigning for independence since she was 16 and would bite your hand off for another chance to achieve her lifelong dream.

It’s also not just a dream she harbours as a personal political fantasy. Of course she genuinely believes independence is the best and correct path for Scotland.

It’s about more than just reaching the Promised Land for the sake of it - it’s about what she thinks Scotland could achieve afterwards, and in her eyes that is a whole lot more than Scotland is achieving within a UK stuck in a Brexit burach (the Gaelic word for ‘mess’).

Independence supporters outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in 2017. Credit: PA

Sturgeon also likes to win. She has made a decision to pick a fight with Theresa May over Brexit before independence because it is good terrain for her.

With the Prime Minister stuck in her own rut, Sturgeon can ride in with solutions to break the deadlock that are seen as sensible and popular in Scotland.

On the other hand, a fight for independence could well be her end.

Defeat in a second independence vote would almost certainly mean resignation, as it did for Alex Salmond, and that is a risk she is not overly keen to take without a clear sign from consecutive polls that she will not lose.

Never forget, Sturgeon lived in the political wilderness for most of her life and she is not eager to return to that cold and anonymous place.

She has learned to become a calculating and cautious leader, pragmatic before anything else. Her politics rarely stray from the very middle of the centre ground.

She sees Brexit as an opportunity for her cause, but while Alex Salmond wants to charge at the British establishment like the Gordon Highlanders, Sturgeon prefers the Mel Gibson depiction of William Wallace in the trenches, urging his army to 'hold, hold' while eagerly gripping their long-spears and preparing only for battles they already know they can win.

I remember well that Nicola Sturgeon once told me that refusing Scotland a second chance to vote for independence before Brexit bites would be "like keeping us all on a sinking ship and puncturing the lifeboats."

She sees independence as an escape - a lifeline.

Those close to her tell me independence is not the First Minister’s focus right now, but I don’t believe that for a second. Sturgeon is waiting.

She’s learned to be patient with a clenched fist; to smile at her enemies and bide her time.

Time is not on her side, though.

If the UK government continues to run down the clock toward Brexit Day, and if No Deal or a bad deal is still looming, I am told the First Minister is ready to finally make her big announcement and launch the biggest fight of her political career.

It won’t come this month. But if Article 50 is not extended, I expect we will hear Nicola Sturgeon call for that second independence referendum before the end of Spring. Then it’s all in, and there is no going back.