The roadmap for the Scottish election looked so clear just a few months ago. The SNP was cruising inevitably towards an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament that it would use to claim a mandate for a second independence referendum, ratcheting up the pressure on the UK Government and setting up (another) constitutional crisis when Boris Johnson said no.
That may well be the part Scottish politics is still destined for after 6 May, but it is looking a little less certain now, thanks almost entirely to own goals from nationalists themselves rather than anything the unionists parties have done.
Following the very public collapse of the relationship between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond in which they each attempted to bring down the other, it seemed that Sturgeon had emerged if not entirely unscathed then certainly less damaged than she might have been as one report into her cleared her of misleading Parliament while another one accused her. The Scottish public, confused and wearied by the whole thing, lost interest as Parliament wound down for the elections.
True to form, however, Salmond was determined to have the last word, launching a new party last week that he insisted could deliver a ‘supermajority’ for the independence movement. The Alba Party will only stand candidates on the regional lists, not in constituencies. Salmond has urged nationalist voters to vote for the SNP in their constituencies and to lend their list vote to the Alba Party, arguing that this tactical voting would squeeze out unionist parties and deliver more nationalist MSPs. It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be, but it has certainly spooked Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MSP candidates who have previously relied on the list to top up their numbers.
Sturgeon, though, was having none of it and rejected an alliance. In part this was due to her genuine animosity at Salmond’s refusal to ‘leave the stage’, but equally to her resistance at being held hostage in any future Parliament by Alba MSPs who are drawn from the wing of nationalism that is far more radical than the First Minister about how to achieve independence.
In all of this, the unionist parties have merely been fighting for second place, albeit with new faces after both Scottish Labour and Conservatives ditched their leaders in recent months. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has returned to the tried and tested approach of pitching the Conservatives as the only party who can stop a second referendum, while Anas Sarwar has attempted to sidestep that argument entirely and focus on the economic recovery, arguing the SNP and Conservatives are only interested in arguing endlessly about the constitution.
But while the first televised debate this evening on BBC Scotland will give a sense of which arguments are likely to cut through, for all the upheaval of recent months the fundamental question is still not whether the SNP comes out on top but by how much, and – crucially – what happens next.