THEY said the honeymoon was all over, but it might not be now.

John Swinney is still away from his desk, and his post-nuptial holiday with Elizabeth Quigley, the SNP's new first lady, lasts another week.

Today's result from NFO System Three, showing the nationalists edging ahead of Labour, suggests his honeymoon as party leader still has some way to run.

When the happy couple left last weekend, the political commentators were united in agreeing that the leadership challenge by Bill Wilson had plunged the SNP into turmoil, with bitter infighting making daily headlines, to the joy of Labour and the Tories.

Mr Swinney will return from honeymoon next week suddenly able to argue that the picture might not be so bleak after all for the Nationalists, as they try to resolve their differences without further bloodletting.

The leader knows, though, that poll results can be fleeting, and the results from May 1 are still uppermost in SNP minds.

Senior party leaders are braced for a conference showdown on two main issues dividing supporters of Mr Swinney and Dr Wilson, the grassroots activist who has split the party by challenging the leader - the first time a rival has ever laid claim to a serving SNP national convener's job.

Supporters of Dr Wilson accuse Team Swinney of putting the SNP's priority objective of independence on the back burner by promising a referendum on the issue if the party wins power.

They are also resisting a centralised membership structure which, they argue, would take power away from constituency associations and branches, weakening internal democracy.

Dr Wilson insists there is no point in the SNP asking voters to back independence in a general election and then offering the same voters the chance to reject it once the SNP is in power.

Mr Swinney's supporters argue it is inconceivable the ultimate constitutional question for Scotland could be resolved without a


A meeting of party strategists yesterday put the question of centralised lists down for debate at Inverness next month when the issue is expected to be resolved by a straightforward delegate vote.

The referendum issue will be dealt with in the wider context of a full debate on the SNP's ''roadmap'' to independence, a move that will focus clearly the differing strategies dividing the party.

Peter Murrell, SNP chief executive, denied a report yesterday that the party had ''slumped'' into a debt of (pounds) 500,000 and that Mr Swinney was ''beleaguered'' by lack of funding.

Mr Murrell said half of the figure was accounted for by interest-free loans given by party member four years ago after the 1999 elections. ''There is no rush for repayment,'' he said. A further (pounds) 40,000 would be repaid in June, he said, and another (pounds) 23,000 was for payments on leases of equipment including photocopiers. ''These are normal costs for normal lease arrangements,'' he said, adding: ''Our operating debt is about (pounds) 192,000 which is far better than it was four years ago. We are not in a financial crisis.''

Mr Swinney has ordered a review of SNP funding, admitting the party needs more money and that its internal structure is in need of radical reform as part of his proposed modernisation drive.

The SNP is alone among the four main Scottish parties in having no corporate or trade union funding, relying on individual donations.