Nicola Sturgeon's appearance before a Scottish parliament committee next week will be a climactic moment in a feud between the first minister and her predecessor, Alex Salmond, that the Scottish National Party's enemies hope will tear it apart.
The committee is investigating the Scottish government’s investigation into allegations of harassment against Salmond by two civil servants, which a judicial review in January 2019 found to be unlawful and “tainted by bias”.
Salmond was later charged with a number of offences including sexual assault and attempted rape and was cleared of all charges in court last year. His allies have long claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy organised by figures around Sturgeon who feared he was planning a political comeback.
Salmond pulled out of a planned appearance before the committee this week when he was not allowed to publish evidence he has given to a separate inquiry into whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code by failing to tell the truth about her meetings with Salmond about the allegations against him. Sturgeon's husband, Peter Murrell, who is also the SNP's chief executive, added to the mystery surrounding those meetings with an incoherent appearance before the committee in which he contradicted his earlier account of events.
Divisions within the SNP, a party that has long been adept at keeping its internal disagreements out of public view, rose to the surface at Westminster earlier this month when Joanna Cherry was sacked from the front bench. A close ally of Salmond's, Cherry is one of the most accomplished political figures in the SNP but she has clashed with Sturgeon over the party's strategy for achieving independence and on transgender rights.
Cherry opposes the Scottish government's plan to allow people to make a statutory self-identification of their gender, as the law in Ireland allows.
Unionists, including those in Boris Johnson’s government, have been watching the SNP’s internal disputes with delight and anticipation but the latest polling evidence suggests that Sturgeon has little to fear. A ComRes/Savanta poll on Thursday found that, although most people don’t know anything about the row over transgender rights, SNP voters back Sturgeon over Cherry on the issue.
The poll is the 21st in succession to report a majority in favour of Scottish independence, with 53 per cent in favour and 47 per cent opposed when the undecided are excluded. The SNP is on course to regain its majority at Holyrood in May, winning 71 seats and a majority of 13.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and Britain's leading expert on elections, tells me that Scots are more inclined to believe Sturgeon than Salmond, who has a lower approval rating even than Johnson.
“She’s a bloody popular politician up here at the moment, and he isn’t,” he says.
He believes Sturgeon is crucial to the SNP’s success, not least because her cabinet includes few other figures of substance but also on account of her personal qualities.
"The handling of the pandemic has been Nicola Sturgeon from front and centre. It's been her communication skills, which have just been so much better than Boris's, which have persuaded people that she knew what she was doing. They can't afford to lose her, which of course is why the opposition are desperate to get rid of her," he says.
The size of the SNP’s victory at Holyrood in May could determine the next steps in the party’s campaign for independence. Sturgeon has said she will ask Westminster to agree to a section 30 order under the Scotland Act to allow for a second independence referendum.
Johnson has promised that he will not agree to such an order, so the SNP will have to resort to plan B, an alternative strategy Sturgeon has been reluctant to spell out. Curtice points out that until David Cameron agreed to the 2014 referendum, the SNP never believed that any British government would allow one, so they focused on alternatives.
“The SNP have spent a lot of time trying to work out how, if you have a majority at Holyrood, you might be able to hold a legal referendum. But the crucial thing to understand is that we’re talking about a legal referendum,” he says.
“I think plan B will be to run a referendum on whether the Scottish government should enter into negotiations for independence.”
The UK government could try to prevent the referendum by seeking judicial review or it could legislate to make it unlawful. Curtice says that one option open to the SNP after that, which has been espoused by Cherry, would be to state in its 2024 Westminster election manifesto that if it wins a majority of seats in Scotland, it will be a mandate for independence in the same way as the Irish election in 1918 was.
“The risk for unionists is you end up with a hung parliament in which the SNP, who want independence, hold the hinge. It will make the 2017-2019 parliament look like a child’s playground,”
“And this is why I keep on saying, at the end of the day, what do unionists have to do? They have to win the substantive argument. They have been losing the substantive argument in the last two years, largely as a result of the actions and policies of the prime minister. He has to understand and accept that.”