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Nicola Sturgeon will break her promise to focus solely on the pandemic and start planning for independence on "day one" of her new government, the Scottish Tory leader warned voters in Thursday’s Holyrood election.
Douglas Ross told The Telegraph that Scots who plan to vote SNP because they approve of Ms Sturgeon's performance in tackling Covid but do not want another referendum soon should prepare to be "disappointed".
He predicted Ms Sturgeon would claim all their votes as support for breaking up the UK when the final result is announced on Saturday, despite her telling a TV debate this week that Scots who oppose a referendum should still vote SNP.
In a direct message to voters who believe they can safely back the SNP without endorsing separation, he urged them not to fall for her "cynical ploy" of pivoting away from independence to her Covid performance in the final week of the campaign.
The SNP has delivered leaflets across the country showing an image of a podium similar to the one Ms Sturgeon stands behind during her televised Covid briefings with the slogan: "On May 6, every vote counts in deciding who will be First Minister."
With opinion polls showing that an SNP majority is on a knife edge, and turnout likely to be decisive, Ms Sturgeon said: "If I am re-elected First Minister, I guarantee I’ll be back at my desk straight away tackling the pandemic."
But Mr Ross said her timetable for holding another separation vote by the end of 2023 would mean the SNP would have to start work immediately on plans for a new independence prospectus to replace the White Paper used in the 2014 referendum.
Another indication she may not wait long before starting preparations is she faces a lengthy court battle with the UK Government over her plans for a “wildcat” referendum if the Prime Minister refuses to hand her the powers for another vote.
Asked on Wednesday if he should allow a referendum if people in Scotland voted for pro-independence parties, Boris Johnson said: "Well, let's wait and see what actually happens."
Speaking while campaigning in the English local elections, he said: "I think that most people in Scotland, most people around the whole of the UK, feel that this is not the time, as we're coming forward out of a pandemic together, this is not the time to have a reckless, and I think irresponsible, second referendum.
"We had one only a few years ago – I think what most people want is to focus on the country and taking it forward and rebuilding our economy and getting people into work. That seems to me to be the priority."
Scots go to the polls on Thursday to elect 129 MSPs using two ballot papers. One is for their constituency MSP, elected under first past the post, and another for their regional list MSPs, allocated using a complex form of proportional representation.
Ms Sturgeon fell short of a majority in the 2016 contest and the Scottish Tories hope to stop her again by convincing Unionists to vote tactically for them using the peach ballot paper for the regional list.
Several more opinion polls published on Thursday indicated that Ms Sturgeon's SNP is on course to win a majority, which she plans to use to increase pressure on Mr Johnson to drop his opposition to a vote.
If he refuses, she plans to push through her own Referendum Bill at Holyrood and challenge him to block it in court. Ms Sturgeon has said she wants to stage the vote in the first half of the five-year parliament, when Scotland is still recovering from the pandemic.
However, an Ipsos Mori survey for STV indicated that the election result is hanging in the balance, with the difference between a seven-seat SNP majority and Ms Sturgeon falling short likely to come down to a handful of crucial tightly-contested seats.
Surveys over the past week have also shown declining support for independence, with one finding that barely one in four voters want a referendum within the next two years and a minority back one within five years.
Pressed during a BBC Scotland TV debate on Tuesday about what voters should do if they "want you but don't want independence", Ms Sturgeon said: "They should vote for me on Thursday safe in the knowledge that getting us through this crisis is my priority."
But Mr Ross said: "I think people have to realise that a vote for Nicola Sturgeon or a vote for the SNP will be taken by them as a vote to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK.
"They will immediately, after the election result, claim that every single vote cast for the nationalists is a vote in favour of another independence referendum."
He said there had been "growing" opposition during the campaign to Ms Sturgeon's plan for a separation vote while Scotland is recovering from the pandemic, even among some who support independence.
Referring to polls and focus groups showing some voters intend to back the SNP despite opposing a referendum, Mr Ross said: "Those people should be prepared to be disappointed by Nicola Sturgeon.
"The final piece of legislation they pushed through the last Scottish Parliament was their independence Bill and it will be one of the first they try to get through the next Parliament if they get a majority."
Mr Ross said "the attention of the Scottish Government, of SNP officials, of civil servants will be put towards making the case for independence rather than delivering a recovery of the country".
Ms Sturgeon’s preparations would have to start on "day one" for a referendum to be held in 2023, he argued, as "she had not got a settled position yet on the currency or the border so they would have to try and come up with answers that they've been unable to give since 2014".
Ms Sturgeon said: "After a year of unprecedented challenge for all of us, the country needs experienced leadership to take Scotland through the pandemic – and only the SNP are offering a serious programme for the Government to keep Scotland safe and into a recovery."
She added: "When the Covid crisis has passed, we will give the people of Scotland the opportunity to decide if they want the recovery to be in the hands of the likes of Boris Johnson and the austerity-driven Tories, or to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands with independence."