Key SNP figures told by Nicola Sturgeon to prepare for possible election

SNP parliamentarians have been told by Nicola Sturgeon to prepare for a possible Scottish election if the government at Holyrood fails to pass its budget today.

The Scottish Government heads into today’s vote without a deal to secure a majority, risking defeat on its spending plans for the coming year.

During a meeting of the SNP group at Westminster attended by the First Minister on Monday, Ms Sturgeon warned her MPs that they should prepare for a possible Scottish election campaign if the government fails to get its budget through, The Scotsman understands.

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However the move comes amid speculation that Ms Sturgeon may need a fresh mandate from the electorate to secure another referendum on independence, as she prepares to reveal her plans on the issue. Publicly, the government has stated that it is focused on getting its spending plans passed and is confident of reaching a compromise.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola SturgeonScotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

In 2009, when an SNP minority government had its budget defeated by the Scottish Parliament, then-First Minister Alex Salmond threatened a snap election before the deadlock was broken.

The current SNP minority has struck a more conciliatory tone and sought to calm speculation about an election, with Finance Secretary Derek Mackay last night appealing for MSPs to “act responsibly”.

Last ditch talks are set to continue today in the final hours before a vote, with the Green Party holding out for concessions on local government spending and council tax reform.

Mr Mackay must secure the support of the six Green MSPs to pass his budget, with all other opposition parties committed to voting against it.

Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie has dismissed suggestions his party could bring down the government by rejecting the SNP’s budget as a “myth”.

But senior Nationalist figures were openly speculating about the possibility of an election earlier in the week, with SNP committee convener Gillian Martin warning Green MSP Andy Wightman on social media that voting down the budget could force an election and put a second Scottish independence referendum at risk.

“You’ve seen the way the other parties coalesce against us to try and bring down the government,” Ms Martin posted on Twitter. “Since 2014 everything for them is about defeating the pro-Indy Parliament.”

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She added: “We are at risk of an election that might see pro Indy parties lose seats and put us in a weaker position.”

Polls show the SNP remains in the lead in Scottish Parliament voting intention, but that the nationalists have lost ground compared with their performance in the 2017 Holyrood election where they narrowly lost their majority.

Scottish Conservative shadow finance secretary Murdo Fraser claimed uncertainty around the budget showed the SNP were “unfit” for government.

“The SNP has neglected the day job so badly that it’s now struggling to get the single-biggest responsibility taken care of. Nicola Sturgeon is so resigned to the weakness of her own administration, she’s been forced to rally the troops for another election.

“Hers would be the first government in the history of the Scottish Parliament to call an election because it couldn’t pass a budget.

“That would be a shameful legacy, and shows just how unfit the Nationalists are for government of any kind.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign chair Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “We’ve made clear to the SNP that we want a budget that focuses on education, mental health and local government funding.

“If their inability to get a budget through necessitates a new Scottish Parliament election then I have every hope that people in Scotland will want to use that to eject the Nationalists.”

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A Labour spokesman said “no credible anti-austerity party would propose” the draft budget put forward by the SNP.

With no deal last night, Mr Mackay said: “Our spending plans for the coming year contain additional money for schools and hospitals, protecting vital public services and investing in our economy, while also providing stability amid the ongoing uncertainty caused by Brexit.

“With that backdrop in mind, there has never been more need for MSPs, of all parties, to act responsibly and not add to that uncertainty.”

Mr Mackay added: “We are open to compromise in order to ensure we deliver the Budget that the country expects.”