The high-stakes game of poker being played by Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May over Scotland’s future has given the SNP’s spring conference a real edge.
Of course, there have been sessions and speeches on issues such as health, education, defence and land reform. But this has been little more than a sideshow compared with the constant talk of a second referendum.
May’s declaration that “now is not the time” for indyref2 has led to much anger. With Downing Street standing firm and refusing to contemplate a rerun of the 2014 poll until after a Brexit deal is concluded, another possibility raised its head. The failure of senior SNP figures, including the party’s leader, to rule out holding an advisory referendum without the consent of Westminster has excited much comment.
Defying Westminster may be an appealing idea to those thirsting for another referendum. It may also be an attempt to raise the stakes in the Bute House/Downing Street poker game.
The chances, however, of an “illegitimate” poll actually taking place are next to none.
Despite the SNP’s leadership being unwilling to reject the notion out of hand, they know such an approach would be fraught with difficulties. An advisory referendum risks being caught up in the courts, and would probably be boycotted by those against independence and simply add confusion.
The SNP leadership knows that, and despite the rhetoric there is little appetite to go down that route. In fact, there are some at conference who privately acknowledge that in many ways it suits the party for May to play hardball.
It gives the SNP more time to come up with answers to long-standing issues such as the currency question and building an economic case.
There also has to be a shift in public opinion towards independence for Sturgeon to feel confident of winning.
So behind the anger over May’s rejection of Sturgeon’s autumn 2018/spring 2019 timetable, there is realpolitik at play.
The SNP leadership are now looking at the window between a Brexit deal and the end of the current parliamentary term in May 2021.