Now comes the real test for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP

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Commentary by Thomas Connolly

Welcome to the start of the SNP’s UK general election campaign. With a new leader in place and a massive surge in membership, the party spent the weekend getting on a war footing for the May 7 poll.

Nicola Sturgeon’s long expected elevation came in the most unexpected of circumstances. The resignation of a party leader after a referendum defeat usually signals a fearful entry into the doldrums.

Yet the outgoing leader, Alex Salmond, continued to enjoy a healthy personal lead over other party leaders in successive opinion polls. His successor’s poll figures are even higher.

It is indeed an astonishing turn of political affairs. The Yes vote captured 45 per cent, yet the main independence party’s membership has more than tripled to 85,000 in just two months since that setback.

Salmond, whose resignation on September 19 was greeted with short-lived glee in some opposition quarters, is expected widely to be plotting a return to Westminster. There he might wreak havoc amongst the pro-Union parties, should the UK poll result in a hung parliament, as many believe it will.

Now his successor has spent the weekend basking in the warm political sunshine of an unopposed selection and great adulation. Her conference speech brought the delegates in Perth to their feet. Nicola Sturgeon may have been deputy to Salmond for many years, yet her final arrival at the top was achieved in circumstances which make her seem fresh, exciting and more of a “new arrival” than she is.

The headline-grabbing initiatives, such as the open invitation to prominent Yes campaigners to stand as SNP candidates whether or not they are party members, reflect a perceived need for Sturgeon to take a “big tent” approach to the immediate post-referendum situation.

She needs to demonstrate that she is open and seeking consensus. She knows that she must build on that 45 per cent so that it becomes a clear and willing majority for Scottish independence. And – while British politics is in seizure – she knows that timing could play to her party’s favour during the months and years ahead.

“I want to speak to those beyond our party ranks, to No voters as well as to Yes voters,” she remarked. This is a key point, as the SNP needs to convince previously-loyal Labour supporters to switch votes for the UK elections, and not just the Scottish ones.

Until the referendum, many Scots voted tactically. Labour for the UK, SNP for Scotland. The SNP sense now that Labour’s position is so split – between Left and Right, Yes and No, Blairite and the rest – that it could be forever ripped asunder.

The SNP clearly believes that Jim Murphy’s election as Scottish Labour leader will help the Nationalist cause. Its left-of-centre position is threatened only if Labour reclaims that space, for example by electing Neil Findlay MSP. Even if Murphy wins and tries to re-set that perception, he has very little time to achieve it before the May poll.

For good measure, Sturgeon promises a child care revolution and continued investment in the Scottish NHS if her party wins a third term at Holyrood in 2016.

But that was the icing on the cake for a woman who has scarcely put a foot wrong throughout her political career. In some ways she had a lengthy apprenticeship as deputy party leader and Deputy First Minister (the latter role now to be taken by John Swinney MSP). Her real test starts now, with the prospect of an unprecedented breakthrough for the SNP at Westminster.