HONEYMOON periods are absolutely normal for a party that has achieved either a surprise election success or a landslide victory. The SNP managed both in May, so we shouldn’t be overly startled by their heady showing in a third consecutive monthly TNS poll, but nor should we feel sure that the current trend is bound to last until polling day next year.

There are a few warning signs for Nicola Sturgeon in the poll’s supplementary questions. For many voters, an inclination to vote SNP doesn’t translate into enthusiasm for the party’s performance in specific areas of government policy. Only 43 per cent of prospective SNP voters say the Scottish Government has managed the NHS well over the last twelve months, and the equivalent figure is lower still for the other three policy areas that TNS asked about.

It may be that Unionist parties and commentators have had some success in chipping away at public faith in the Scottish Government’s competence on domestic matters. If so, their hope must be that the SNP’s underlying support will prove much weaker when the independence debate drifts into the background, and people turn their attention back to bread-and-butter issues. However, they can’t rely on that being the case. The SNP’s current position might be seen as roughly comparable to Labour’s at UK level in the run-up to the 2001 election, when there was a degree of disquiet about the government’s track record, especially on health. That didn’t stop Tony Blair winning another landslide: at that time he still attracted so much personal goodwill, and the principal opposition had lost all credibility.

One complication faced by Sturgeon that Blair didn’t have to worry about is the two-ballot nature of Holyrood elections, with list seats distributed in a way that effectively penalises a party that does “too well” in constituency seats. The SNP’s record-breaking 62 per cent showing on the constituency vote in the TNS poll will doubtless give heart to those in smaller pro-independence parties who are seeking to persuade people that an SNP vote on the list would be wasted.They may argue that even if SNP constituency support drops by as much as twelve points over the next nine months, we would return to the same result that saw the map of Scotland being painted almost exclusively yellow on General Election night.

However, the limited information available from pollsters other than TNS suggests we will continue to see massive variation in estimates of the SNP vote, leaving budding “strategic voters” perilously unsure of the true state of play. For example, the Panelbase poll in late June/early July gave a figure of 53 per cent on the constituency ballot. That’s much closer to the danger zone where relatively little slippage would leave the SNP needing a significant number of list seats to keep an overall majority.

It could be that one of the biggest threats to Sturgeon over the coming months will be the polls themselves.

James Kelly writes a pro-independence blog called Scot goes POP!