NICOLA Sturgeon has been pitched into the frontline of the independence fight after Alex Salmond used a surprise reshuffle to marshal his troops for the battle ahead.
In a move seen partly as an attempt to woo undecided female voters, the Deputy First Minister was moved from her job as Health Secretary yesterday to a new dual role, taking on both the infrastructure portfolio and responsibility for Scottish Government strategy and the constitution.
Ms Sturgeon has been tasked with piloting the Referendum Bill through Holyrood but, before that, she will take the lead in sensitive negotiations with Westminster to agree a format for the historic 2014 poll.
The Glasgow Southside MSP will today meet Scotland Office minister David Mundell, as she replaces Bruce Crawford as the Government's strategy chief.
She has voiced enthusiastic support for a one-question referendum and her appointment was seen as a further sign the SNP is preparing to agree to a simple Yes/No vote.
The UK Government is unwilling to provide legal guarantees for the poll if the SNP insists on posing a second question on more powers for Holyrood.
The appointment came as it emerged the First Minister's office and Downing Street are in contact over dates for a key meeting between Mr Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron to agree the legislative framework for the referendum. It may take place in early October.
Ms Sturgeon, who is replaced as Health Secretary by Alex Neil, the infrastructure, investments and cities minister, said the long-running dispute would be resolved "in the next few weeks". She added: "I think there is no reason why we can't resolve the process issues fairly quickly. I'll be seeking to pick up the pace of that when I meet David Mundell."
Asked if the referendum would go ahead in the autumn of 2014 – a time-table that could be at risk if legal guarantees are not in place early next year – she said: "Of course it will, yes."
Ms Sturgeon, as infrastructure minister, will still be leading the Government's fight for extra cash for so-called "shovel ready" building projects.
But her other role means Mr Salmond's team is in place to fight the independence campaign. Mr Salmond's former chief spin doctor, Kevin Pringle, who is also seen as one of the SNP's most effective operators, has already left the Government to take on a new role as communications chief for the SNP.
Mr Pringle will work alongside Ms Sturgeon in her capacity as the party's representative on the board of the cross-party Yes Scotland campaign.
The SNP hopes Ms Sturgeon will reach out to a broader cross-section of Scots after a YouGov poll in July showed a yawning gulf in support for independence between men and women.
It found 39% of men wanted
Scotland to leave the UK compared with 22% of females. But only 8% of males said they were undecided, compared with 23% of women.
Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour Leader, said: "When he put forward his programme for government, the First Minister made it clear the referendum was his one and only priority.
"If anyone had any doubt he has lost touch with the priorities of Scottish families, it was confirmed when he moved his most senior minister Nicola Sturgeon from health to the constitution. We face a real challenge delivering health services at a time of diminishing resources but Nicola Sturgeon has run away from that to concentrate on the referendum."
She said the infrastructure role was now a "part-time job".
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson MSP said: "That the health of the nation now plays second fiddle to the break-up of Britain says it all about this SNP administration.
"The First Minister has moved his most trusted lieutenant from one of Scotland's most critical briefs to pursue his nationalist agenda. Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: "This reshuffle shows that the SNP Government only has eyes for independence. They are more interested in running the referendum than running the country."