ALEX BELL: The end is in sight for Nicola Sturgeon

© Andrew Cowan/Scottish ParliamentFirst Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The endgame in Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership has begun.

She has led the devolved administration into a showdown with Westminster.

Holyrood says No to the post-Brexit divvy up of powers, Downing Street says Yes.

All that matters now is what the Supreme Court says, and what Westminster concludes when the deal is put to the Commons.

We can be pretty sure the court will rule this is a matter for the sovereign government – Westminster – and so force the deal on Holyrood.

It is impossible at this stage to say what Westminster will do, given so much is still unknown, and what is known is so confused.

Yet the SNP’s grip is slipping. Not least because Sturgeon is staking her reputation in a fight over devolution, which isn’t even her party’s policy.

The Tory government wants Westminster to hold power over matters such as agriculture and food standards because British nationalists think they’ll need to cut deals in these areas in order to strike new trade partnerships across the world when out of the EU.

Sturgeon and Holyrood, except for the Tory MSPs, want powers returning from the EU to go straight to Edinburgh.

So we are not getting a constitutional crisis over independence and not because Scotland rejected Brexit.

Instead it’s a crisis over devolution. This is, then, not her fight. If she wins, all she has done is secure the devolution settlement. If she loses, she looks too weak to fight her big cause, independence.

This Brexit guddle is not the only sign things are drawing to a close. The impressive turnout of 35,000 people on the streets of Glasgow demanding a referendum before 2021 cannot be ignored.

Yet the last thing the indy cause needs is another referendum any time soon. Asking the same question and expecting a different answer is the pop definition of stupid.

In the years since the last vote, not a single bone has been added to the skeletal case of 2014. Yet Sturgeon is in the odd position of having weaponised her own supporters.

She gave them two clubs with which to beat the leadership into action.

The first was the spurious notion of a “triple lock” on the right to hold Indyref2. It was defined as a win at the Holyrood elections, a parliamentary vote for a referendum and becoming the biggest party in Scotland at the last UK election.

Too late now to point out that SNP candidates were desperately saying the last UK election was not about the referendum.

Too late indeed, as members came to believe a triple lock is a thing of substance and meaning, and they have one.

In normal circumstances the SNP, good at giving things a name then repeating it ad nauseum, would quietly drop the notion in the face of resilient apathy from the rest of the nation.

This time, the triple lock is waved like a claymore by people no longer able to distinguish between political tactic and divine destiny. The second mistake Sturgeon made was to declare a second referendum in March of last year.

Most of us have forgotten the event, but she said it and the hardcore want it.

She cannot, as she would dearly love, admit it too was a device intended to boost support, but which signally failed.

In her preferred world, the referendum would be forgotten, the triple lock consigned to a dustbin of wheezes; she has moved on. The membership haven’t. The big change for the SNP is they no longer control the hardcore thousands who are prepared to march. These are the equivalent of Labour’s Momentum, of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Brexit fanatics. From their point of view a weakening of devolution should be a godsend.

Nothing looks more likely to get Scotland into an independence fervour than London imposing chlorine-washed chicken on the Scottish middle-classes, as a US trade deal may require.

That is the kind of inflammatory detail that connects with people’s emotions, and galvanises them to action.

Sturgeon is accused by unionists of using this row to promote independence – they are quite wrong.

If all she cared about was indy, she’d give London enough rope to hang itself by its chlorine-soaked chicken neck.

In fact she is staking everything on defending the current UK settlement.

This opportunity cannot pass hardcore supporters by – why fight to save an institution they don’t want, when its decay might hasten independence?

All this is great pity. She is a good politician with a genuine concern for Scotland’s excluded and a feel for our moderate ways. If Nicola had been a great politician, she wouldn’t be in this mess. Her only hope is that the Commons rejects the whole thing.

However, then the cry for another independence vote will only get louder.

She’s in a bad place, and it won’t end well.