THE SNP’s special conference to thrash out independence strategy details and whether or not to pursue a de-facto referendum is unlikely to go ahead, party insiders told The National.

When the Supreme Court judgment said that the Scottish Parliament didn’t have the competence to legislate for a referendum as the constitution is a reserved matter, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the summit with SNP members would be the next step.

However, just four weeks ahead of the event scheduled to be held in Edinburgh, Sturgeon announced her resignation, throwing a spanner in the works for the key strategy meeting.

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Sturgeon said her resignation would “free the SNP” to debate the next steps, after the de-facto referendum bid became unpopular in some quarters of the party.

And now, members from across the party are debating whether or not it should in fact go ahead - with a looming leadership election set to take place over at least six to eight weeks, the SNP National Executive Committee (NEC) is set to meet on Thursday night to finalise what comes next. One party official said they were “98% sure” the summit would be canned in the coming days.

Ahead of that crucial meeting, The National spoke to politicians and officials inside the SNP to gauge whether or not it will go ahead, with even supporters of a de facto referendum suggesting that the date will be moved.

Pete Wishart, SNP MP and supporter of the de facto bid, said he feared postponing the conference would leave the party up against it in terms of putting together an effective Yes campaign with less than a year’s notice if a General Election is called before Autumn 2024.

The National: Wishart said he feared kicking the summit into the long grass could impact campaign preparations ahead of 2024Wishart said he feared kicking the summit into the long grass could impact campaign preparations ahead of 2024 (Image: PA)

He told The National that with the leadership contest set to last at least six weeks, it could be approaching summer by the time a new First Minister and party leader is in place.

“That leaves us less than a year to put in place a proper campaign to have a de facto referendum and I just think that's just going to be such a difficult prospect to achieve," he said. 

“I think all those who are calling for our conference to be postponed should seriously consider the consequences that this will have an opportunity to use Westminster as a vehicle for a de facto referendum and really consider whether that may actually put pay to the whole prospect of it being utilised in a poll.”

SNP MP Stewart McDonald has been publicly and vocally against the de facto referendum bid, writing a 4000 essay on building support for Yes in this newspaper.

McDonald said it would be “mad” to hold the conference while a leadership contest is going on, and said Sturgeon’s resignation moved the goalposts of the debate away from a de facto poll.

“The party will still speak, that's the point of the contest,” McDonald said.

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“The party will speak and leadership candidates will put their pitches on strategy for independence, it will be front and center of any decent pitch for sure.

“Members will still be given their place, I would argue members will actually be given a lot more power in the context of a leadership contest, rather than just deciding on an NEC motion.

“I think [Wishart] you know, he's perhaps right, but for the wrong reasons. His concern is that the members wouldn't get the chance to help us say members will get the chance to have their say, but there'll be a much greater say than we would otherwise get just debating an NEC motion.”

The National: SNP MPS Roddick said she wanted the leadership contenders to focus on the bigger picture as well as independenceSNP MPS Roddick said she wanted the leadership contenders to focus on the bigger picture as well as independence (Image: PA)

But not every party politician wants the entire focus of the leadership election to be on the route to independence, SNP MSP Emma Roddick pointed out that whoever wins is almost certain to be the next first minister.

She told The National: “If we push the decision on the referendum then that’s all the leadership contest would be about.

“That wouldn’t be right, I want to choose a leader based on if they have progressive values like Nicola and being able to lead the Scottish Government.”

SNP rules mean any member can, in theory, stand to be leader though it's expected the candidates will be MSPs - with Westminster leader Stephen Flynn saying he expected that to be the case. 

One party insider said that the conference was likely to be scrapped to allow the leadership contenders to put their pitches first, otherwise, it could create a “strange situation” where the new first minister has a different view on where to take the movement than the membership.

“If I was advising the candidates, I'd probably say stay vague on this and it's up to the members and empower the members to make that choice because either way, it's a lose-lose situation," one SNP source said. 

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“Undoubtedly, you'll be pressed as a candidate to say what you support, so it will be difficult to avoid that question.”

Another source argued that McDonald's stance is "divisive" in the party and that there is a degree of support for a de facto referendum bid. 

Party officials also told The National they had concerns that if the leadership contest is entirely focused on the independence debate it could cause further splits within the party and the contest would become “bitter”.

“To be perfectly honest with you, I think it’s going to be bitter anyway, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a leadership contest.”

The last SNP leadership contest was held in 2004 after John Swinney’s resignation, where Alex Salmond, Mike Russell and Roseanna Cunningham battled for the top job, with Salmond eventually winning with over 75% of the vote.