Alex Salmond's sixth year as Scotland's First Minister is likely to be his most challenging by far.
The programme for government which he will launch next week, and the context in which it will be delivered, is about much more than just the everyday confrontation of politics.
The early months of this new parliamentary session will be vital in framing the debate to come over independence.
For the SNP there are real tensions, both internally and externally, which have to be addressed. Mr Salmond's government has become remarkable for the smoothness of its years in office, both now and when Mr Salmond's was a minority administration. Demonstrating competence was key in facing down accusations from its opponents that the SNP somehow lacked the discipline, authority or simple competence to govern. So far this has been a triumph, but it has been achieved partly by skirting around internal divisions. Now potential points of friction will come to the fore.
The Referendum Bill will see an answer over whether there will be a second question on the ballot paper. Increasingly it looks as if there will not. The debate within the SNP over membership of Nato will have to be settled, but this is another internal fault line. Mr Salmond faces internal dissent over the same-sex marriage bill, which will nevertheless be part of the legislative slate.
Externally, the Scottish Government is also having to address problems which it has arguably deferred for too long. There have been questions all along about whether the party's programme has been too populist, too ready to dodge the difficult decisions.
Ministers have avoided being seen to make the savage cuts which the Coalition Government has delivered south of the Border – although opponents would dispute this, pointing to job losses in the NHS and among teachers – but are now having to confront hard decisions.
The integration of health and social care is proving increasingly controversial and as we revealed yesterday, the policy is prompting rebellion from some Scottish councils.
Meanwhile the SNP's opponents, particularly Labour, intend to focus attacks on Mr Salmond's social democratic credentials. Leaving aside policies such as same-sex marriage, Labour say, where is the wisdom in protecting handouts to those who could afford to pay – such as bus passes and free prescriptions for the well-off – while putting councils in the position of having to make cuts to services for vulnerable groups?
Ministers will present the Scottish Government as setting the agenda and being in the driving seat. But even supporters acknowledge the coming months will be critical.
The way in which Mr Salmond addresses the pressing challenges facing him bears directly on the referendum and will frame the debate about independence. How he and his team handle them will help voters make up their minds – about not just the issues, but whether they are willing to trust him and his party with the leadership of a future independent Scotland.
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