NICOLA Sturgeon said the Tories are “running feart” of a fresh Scottish independence referendum after Defence Secretary Michael Fallon got himself in a tangle on whether his party would block such a vote.

Fallon told a Scottish newspaper his government will block any attempt by Scots to have a second referendum on independence, and Theresa May’s spokesperson later insisted the issue of independence was “settled”.

But quizzed on BBC Radio Scotland Fallon fudged the issue.

And when the issue came up at First Minister’s Questions Sturgeon suggested the Tories are no longer confident of winning a fresh vote on independence.

SNP MSP Tom Arthur asked Sturgeon whether she agreed that if the Scottish Parliament “chooses to have a referendum on Scotland’s future, no Westminster Tory should try to stand in the way?”

“I agree absolutely that, if the Parliament voted to have a referendum on independence, no Westminster Tory should stand in the way of the voice of the Parliament,” Sturgeon replied. “This Government’s mandate in relation to the matter is unequivocal. It was the Tories, after all, who put us in the position of being taken out of the European Union against our will and with the support of only one of the 59 MPs in the country. Is it not strange that a Tory party that proclaims that it would be confident of winning a referendum on independence now talks about trying to block it? Are the Tories not running a wee bit feart?”

Speaking to The Herald, Fallon had said his government would not grant a Section 30 order that would transfer the power to hold a referendum to Holyrood.

“No. Forget it,” Fallon said. “The respect agenda is two-way. She is constantly asking us to respect the SNP Government but she has to respect the decision of Scotland to stay inside the UK in 2014 and the decision of the UK to leave the EU. Respect works two ways.”

Hours later the minister appeared on BBC Radio Scotland, perhaps only realising then quite what he’d said to the Herald.

When pressed to clarify if he would stand in the way, the Defence Secretary avoided the question all together, saying: “We don’t see the need for a referendum, I think this is a diversion. What the Scottish Government should be focusing on is what it was elected to do, which is improve school standards, get to grips with the problems in Scottish hospitals, and reverse the serious rise in unemployment.”

May’s spokesman said: “We believe this issue was settled in 2014. Recent polls don’t suggest that there has been a big change in the views around a second referendum.”

A recent poll for Panelbase suggested support for a second referendum before early 2019 stands at 49.4 per cent. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson opposes a second referendum, but has previously said the UK Government has no right to block it.

Fallon was speaking ahead of a visit to Midlothian to announce Treasury approval for the initial business case for a training school for naval crews working on the UK’s nuclear submarines.

If it goes ahead, it will see the number of staff on the Faslane base rise from 6,800 to 8,200.