Page last updated at 00:34 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 01:34 UK

SNP preparing for key performance

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC news Scotland

Alex Salmond
Mr Salmond is looking to the general election and independence

Introducing this year's SNP conference agenda, party chief executive Peter Murrell unveils a new "pocket guide" to what will unfold during the four-day event.

He writes that the conference is a "vital part of our programme of policy development and communication as we head towards the Westminster election and the independence referendum in 2010".

The document goes on to list a series of SNP successes, such as beating Labour into second place in the European polls in Scotland and winning the Glasgow East by-election.

What it fails to mention is that the only independence-related event the SNP is heading for, at the moment anyway, is parliament's rejection of the Referendum Bill.

Issues like this will, of course, be addressed during the Scottish National Party's 75th annual conference in Inverness, which has come at an important time in the life of the party elected in 2007 to govern Scotland.

Now more than half-way through its term, First Minister Alex Salmond and his troops have been fixing their gaze ever more firmly on the goal of Scottish independence.

One of the fringe highlights is surely 'The Nat Factor' - yes you guessed it, it's the X Factor, SNP-style

At the same time though, ministers are having to contend with more immediate issues - most notably the current squeeze in public spending.

Amid the Scottish government's position that the Westminster efficiency drive has cut £500m off the Holyrood budget, projects such as the Glasgow Airport Rail Link have been ditched.

And, as the SNP's budget plans for the year ahead are being scrutinised at Holyrood, MSPs have been told tough decisions have to be made when it comes to which services can and cannot be provided.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who just months ago was immersed in the Lockerbie case, has gone from being the most high-profile politician to dealing with important domestic concerns, such as police funding.

And Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop has again been fending off opposition claims of "broken manifesto promises" on school buildings and class sizes.

As Mr Salmond ramps up the case for independence, he will need to make a convincing economic argument for such change.

Balance of power

He will want to show the public-at-large that a Scotland standing on its own two feet could survive a future global economic crisis without Westminster, and that the country could be heard loudly and clearly on the European stage.

But, before any of that, the SNP is looking to a more immediate challenge - the forthcoming UK election.

In a target set pre-recession, Mr Salmond says he wants his party to send 20 MPs to Westminster, raising the possibility of the SNP holding the balance of power on reserved issues affecting Scotland, such as Trident and energy policy.

The first minister says this scenario is realistic - it will be a tight election - the only problem is that, when the fight is on for Labour and Tory votes, smaller Westminster parties may suffer.

The result of the Glasgow North East by-election, in November, may give some insight into what might transpire when Prime Minister Gordon Brown calls an election sometime in the next eight months.

Aside from the main issues, the conference also features the usual ministerial speeches and policy debates.

Looking ahead

One of the fringe highlights is surely "The Nat Factor" - yes you guessed it, it is the X Factor, SNP-style, where delegates submit song suggestions for four contestants to perform.

In reference to one of the SNP's MEPs, the event blurb asks: "Tired of Alyn Smith singing Barbie Girl?"

Surely, the answer to that question would be: "No."

So, while the last few SNP conferences have looked at past successes, this one will see the focus increasingly shifting to what lies ahead.

One thing is for sure, there are certainly more issues than can be fitted into one's pocket.

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