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Ponsonby: Sturgeon’s speech brings speculation to an end

Conference speech will soothe nerves among party faithful over timing of indyref2.

SNP activists would have been buoyed by their leader's speech. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The announcement of the result of the EU referendum in June of 2016 had barely been made when Nicola Sturgeon fired the starting gun on indyref2 with the announcement civil servants would start work on preparing new legislation to facilitate a new poll.

In retrospect she may have regretted being quite so hasty. It allowed opponents to berate her for refusing to accept the verdict of the people in 2014. On her own side of the argument it precipitated a frenzy of speculation around one question, when would it take place?

For over three years now the First Minister has played a cagey game but as her speech to delegates in Aberdeen made clear, she is close to requesting the formal powers from Westminster to hold a second poll. The end game of speculation is now just about over.

SNP members in Aberdeen, itching to take to the streets in earnest, have shown an iron discipline in not rocking the boat over the need to articulate a plan B in circumstances where Westminster says ‘no’ to granting a Section 30 order – the legal mechanism giving Holyrood the authority to stage a new referendum.

A small minority within the party have gone public with their concerns over the lack of a plan B. Many share these concerns but do not believe that the time is right to have this debate just as the Brexit dynamic is yet to come to a final conclusion. Within the broader ‘Yes’ movement there is impatience but it does not yet amount to a full-scale row over what should happen next.

This conference speech should soothe nerves if only because it is now clear (if it wasn’t already) that the SNP want indyref2 and they want it next year. Nicola Sturgeon told the faithful that a refusal to sanction a new poll was not sustainable.

With an election likely in the coming months, it will be harder for any UK Prime Minister to hold the current line in circumstances where the SNP have put on seats and votes in any election.

Talk of Holyrood organising a consultative poll horrify the First Minster not least because she wants attention to be on the case for independence not on a protracted debate about whether her government accepts that any poll should be fair and legal. As she told delegates, “the process must be capable of achieving independence”.

Nationalists here have every sympathy with their Catalan cousins, but equally many are aghast at any strategy which would see the issue of independence lost in a quagmire of legal debate which would shift focus on to issues around the rule of law. As the SNP leader said today, the poll must be legal and recognised by the international community.

In any case, the staging of a poll not underpinned by the law would risk giving a UK Prime Minister an argument against indyref ambitions. It would shift focus away from how long that Prime Minister can ignore a mandate and on to why those seeking to prosecute their own mandate are prepared to abandon due process.

The SNPs referendum strategy has been shaped and spurred by Brexit. The tortuous debate about timing a mirror image of the fact the Brexit endpoint keeps changing.

The sense now is that in Brussels, London and Edinburgh events are finally coming to a head. The coming weeks might crystallise the European issue but the debate around the future of the UK is only just beginning.

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