In this space on Tuesday, after the press conference in Bute House 24 hours earlier, I wrote that I'd been impressed by the first minister’s use of the phrase 'long-standing' to describe the SNP's commitment to the European project and went on to produce evidence which flatly refuted her boast – evidence that no-one has challenged for the very good reason that it was purely factual. I concluded that, in the SNP's flexible vocabulary, 'long-standing' could mean anything or nothing. Still, I did expect the phrase to survive the week.

Between 11.30 on Monday morning when a second independence referendum was called because of the divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK on the core issue of EU membership, and an unspecified hour on Tuesday evening when the agenda began to unravel, something profound appears to have happened. 'Senior figures' – and where would the papers be without them? – were putting it about that the first minister had mentally kicked EU membership into the long grass, a thicket where state guardians reside, and was instead setting her sights on joining mighty Liechtenstein in EFTA.

In EFTA, not to be confused with the defunct terrorist organisation ETA, the mighty Liechtenstein and two or three others are allowed to dine at the table of the single market, at some cost, but have virtually no say in matters of consequence. Whether such a humble arrangement will appeal to the growing army of tartan Euro-sceptics feels doubtful, especially if the rival county of Englandshire is reduced to joining EFTA too.

Maybe only the ultimate objective matters – 'Nae British slave' to quote from a fetching tee-shirt among the bearded patriots in George Square on Monday night. The rest is expediency. We should have known that. Certainly the Scottish commentariat should have known it before rushing to congratulate the first minister on 'ambushing' the Tories, 'stealing a march' on May, 'getting in first' etc etc. Before this referendum campaign is much older, we need new clichés, including a few not borrowed from some far-off school playground. But, more urgently, we need clarity from a first minister who appears to have no fixed view of what she wants or when and how she wants it. If you insist on grandstanding, best check the state of the grandstand first.

Now that her reputation has been slightly tarnished by the events of the last few days, it would be hypocritical of me to feign surprise. My own doubts are, so to speak, long-standing. They date back to the time when she was health secretary in Alex Salmond's cabinet and I was preoccupied to the point of obsession with the activities of Southern Cross, an outfit which provided residential care to thousands of elderly and vulnerable people in Scotland.

I discovered that the company was over-stretched and likely to go bust. I then heard, to my greater alarm, that the health secretary was about to sign a contract with the same Southern Cross to provide yet more residential care, a contract I knew would never be honoured. I wrote at once to Nicola Sturgeon and urged her to pull out of the deal while there was still time. A civil servant replied with chilly politeness on her behalf. The contract was duly signed, and a few months later Southern Cross collapsed in financial disarray, putting the welfare of its many clients at immediate risk.

What surprised me was not that the health secretary ignored a journalist's tip-off – the evidence of her Monday press conference is that she has little regard for journalists – but that she herself was so poorly informed about Southern Cross that she stumbled into an unforced error. It should not have gone unpunished. But Ms Sturgeon was the golden girl and heiress apparent, and the Scottish media were, as now, endlessly compliant. Nothing was said – except in this space.

Thinking back on the unhappy episode, I came to the view that signing the contract reflected an innate caution on her part: that it is always easier for ministers (except the boldest, who make a difference) to follow the advice of civil servants, even ones so negligent about doing such essential homework as reading the small print in the Financial Times. And so, when she succeeded Alex Salmond and made it clear that she would need to see a consistent poll rating of 60% for independence before she took the plunge, I thought: no surprises there; that's our Nicola.

Why, then, did she embark on the present adventure (or misadventure) 17% shy of the required figure and apparently with so little confidence in her game plan? The answer is the familiar one: events, dear boy, events. Presumably, though, the precipitate timing of the press conference was down to internal politics: the need to make a grand gesture before this weekend's gathering of the faithful. After her wobbly week, the standing ovation, with Beeb Brian obligingly counting the minutes, should help, but only as long as it lasts. The sad fact about applause is that it always ends.

Does she have what it takes to lead and sustain this ferocious two- or three-year crusade? God knows. Maybe not even God, assuming God is in the least interested in the strange human attachment to borders. But if she falls, there is an obvious successor: that old bruiser, Eck. I understand he has carved a new career in London as a disc jockey of some sort. As he takes yet another call from some semi-literate supporter of West Ham, the futility of his present existence cannot have escaped him. The last great comeback beckons. The dream will never die. And the rest is history; we just don't know when.

Cartoon of Alex Salmond by Bob Smith


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