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EU referendum could expose divisions within the SNP

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NICOLA Sturgeon has conceded the SNP will not be united behind her drive for the UK to remain part of the EU in the forthcoming referendum.

The First Minister will address her party’s biggest ever conference in Aberdeen this week with the issue of Europe one of the major talking points.

Miss Sturgeon and her party’s senior players are avidly pro-EU but polling published last week showed fewer than half of the SNP’s supporters want to remain part of the pan-European alliance.

Speaking at a conference in London, she said: “I think it’s overwhelmingly in Scotland’s interest, it’s in the UK’s interest, to stay in the European Union.

“I don’t think the EU is perfect lots of things about it need to change.

“For economic reasons, for social reasons, for cultural reasons, we need to stay in the EU and I’ll be arguing that case very strongly as we head towards a referendum on the EU.

“I’m not saying every member of the SNP will agree but the SNP position as a party will be for the UK to stay in the EU.”

The TNS poll of 1,000 Scots showed 66% of Labour supporters want to stay in the EU and only 13% want to leave, while 46% of SNP backers favour remaining and 23% want out.

The party’s conference will attract more than 5,000 delegates and Miss Sturgeon is expected to use her main address to conference to rebuff attacks from her opponents that she obsesses about the constitution.

With the Scottish parliament 2016 election only seven months away, SNP strategists are turning their attention to winning a third successive term in office with Miss Sturgeon setting a target of repeating the party’s historic 2011 result where they bagged the first ever Holyrood majority.

Then, the party’s campaign strategy was based around its track record and competence of its key performers such as Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

It will be more of the same in this campaign but, unlike in 2011 when they started behind Labour in the polls, they are already well ahead.

Miss Sturgeon said: “Winning a third term would be historic and unprecedented, making the SNP the first party since devolution to win three successive Holyrood terms in office.

“People know we have the policies which are making a real difference to families and communities across Scotland that’s why I’ll be very proud to stand on our record next May.

“Our conference is shaping up to be our biggest and best ever, and we are looking to send delegates away with a spring in their step as we keep our eyes on the prize of a third term.”

One issue which is very much off the cards at the conference is the issue of independence and the possibility of a second referendum.

The thorny subject will only get an outing in a 200-capacity room Fringe meeting, where the timing of another big vote will be discussed.

The grassroots members, particularly those who joined up in the wake of last year’s referendum, may be unhappy about this.

But those in the positions of power in the SNP are desperate to keep it that way and have the backing of most of their MSPs and MPs.

One veteran Nationalist MSP said: “Frankly, it’s only been a year. We can’t all agree on it, so why would you want to debate something which can only generate bad publicity at a time when we need to be focused on the Holyrood election?

“This is a time to be talking about our record of running the country and what we’ll do to build on that.”

Miss Sturgeon has already bought herself some time by promising the timing and “triggers” of a possible second independence referendum will be unveiled next April in the party’s manifesto.

But the truth is the issue is never too far from the surface in the world of the Nationalists.

At the women in the world conference in London, Miss Sturgeon hinted at ways that she’d do things differently if given another chance of a referendum.

She said: “Maybe my party, down the years, hasn’t got across often enough wanting Scotland to be independent means wanting to have the political and economic power of an independent country.

“It’s not about ripping up the other aspects of union between Scotland and the rest of the UK the social, family and cultural unions that exist.”

It was a line which had hints of a long-haul soft diplomacy plan but also recognition of the areas where the Yes side went wrong.Liam Fox tells Tories to focus on EU referendum – NOT party leadership – click here to read more