ALEX Salmond will tomorrow demand a "no-strings" deal from Westminster on a proposed transfer of power to Holyrood which would safeguard an independence referendum from legal challenges.
The First Minister will put the demand at the heart of talks with Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary, when the pair meet in Edinburgh to discuss the 2014 ballot.
The meeting with Moore is expected to be followed shortly afterwards by one between Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron, possibly as early as Thursday.
The Coalition insists Holyrood does not have the legal authority to hold its own referendum on separation, as the 1998 Scotland Act forbids it legislating on issues connected to the Union.
If the Parliament did try to go it alone on a referendum, there could be a lengthy challenge in the UK Supreme Court, Moore argues.
The SNP and a number of academics say this is nonsense, and ignores the political reality of a nation having the right to decide its own future.
To ensure what he calls a "fair, legal and decisive" vote, Moore is proposing to transfer extra powers to Holyrood, under Section 30 of the Scotland Act, to put the legality of the independence referendum beyond doubt.
However, the Section 30 order could come with preconditions on the timing of the vote, whether 16 and 17-year-olds could participate, and how many options appeared on the ballot.
The Coalition want a single Yes/No question on independence, while Salmond wants to leave the door open to a third option of greater devolution. It is these "strings" on the Section 30 order which the First Minister wants removed when the pair meet at St Andrews House.
Salmond's spokesman said: "We are entirely confident that, within our current powers, the Scottish Parliament can hold a consultative referendum, but have consistently said we have no difficulty with a Section 30 order to address the UK Government's concerns. The key point – which we believe should be a point of consensus with UK Ministers – is that the terms of the referendum must be decided in Scotland.
"The Electoral Reform Society Scotland agrees that any 'legal mandate' must have 'no strings attached', so Scottish Parliament can 'call a referendum at a time, and with a question (or questions) of their choosing'.
"We trust Mr Moore will agree with that democratic position at Monday's meeting, in accordance with the UK Government's own 'respect agenda' for Scotland."
Moore's side said they were confident on reaching agreement on the timing, franchise and format of the ballot, but conceded there was unlikely to be a final decision while both governments were consulting on the mechanics of the referendum.
A spokesman said the Scottish Secretary was "optimistic" about sorting out the questions of process quickly, and moving on to the substance of the independence debate.
"A lot of progress has been made in the past few weeks," he said. "The Scottish Government has helpfully clarified a number of details including its preference for a single question and the involvement of the Electoral Commission.
"Hopefully we can agree on Monday that this is the preferred route to a fair and legal referendum."
Labour leader Johann Lamont added: "It seems like the only strings Alex Salmond wants to attach are his own.
"We do not regard a fair, transparent referendum with independent scrutiny as having strings attached. They are the basic rules of engagement for any democratic referendum."
LibDem sources yesterday played down a newspaper report that Moore suggested that a vote for the status quo in a referendum would actually be taken as a signal for more devolution in the long term.
The SNP said it made Moore sound like ex-Tory prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home who said before the 1979 devolution referendum that a vote for the status quo meant more powers in future.
Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie last night wrote to Salmond asking him to clarify the SNP position on the monarchy under independence.
Rennie said the last time the SNP voted on the issue, in 1997, it decided to hold a referendum on whether to keep the monarch as head of state in the first term of an independent Scotland.