NICOLA Sturgeon looks relaxed, and no wonder. Traditionally at this point in a campaign, party leaders acquire a frazzled, sleep-deprived look. Eyes droop, smiles die instantly on their lips, and brains fog over as they inwardly beg for the whole damn thing to finish.

But Holyrood 2016 is an election like no other. The outcome has been clear since the SNP completed its project to replace Labour as the first party of Scotland last May. Unless every pollster has lost the plot, the SNP will stroll it next week, and most probably win another majority. The only suspense, of sorts, is whether Labour or the Tories come third.

Not that the result is less important. The next parliament will have a raft of new powers over tax and benefits and face continued austerity. That the SNP will be in office is not in dispute; the issue is what they do with it and whether Scotland moves closer to independence.

But for now the First Minister’s main task appears to be remembering to say “if” she wins, not when. She seems to be coping with the strain.

What’s the doorstep pitch? “Vote SNP for a party that always stands up for Scotland, that is stronger for Scotland, and a government that will keep the country moving in the right direction,” she says. “It’s also the first election I’ve been saying, Vote for me as First Minister.”

Three policy priorities? “Childcare - the [Finnish-style] baby box and maternity and early years allowance to give young children the best start in life. Closing the educational attainment gap, and the investment there. Our package of proposals to invest in and reform the health service.”

Getting that personal mandate as First Minister “matters a lot”, she says. Because you felt a bit over-shadowed by Alex Salmond? “I won’t say I’ve never felt in Alex Salmond’s shadow, but latterly when Alex was leader I didn’t. It’s more about my awareness of the fact I became First Minister during a parliamentary term. That means you’re First Minister, but you haven’t been elected in your own right as First Minister. I don’t think it changes things in a legal or democratic sense, but it matters to me to have that mandate.”

Tax has been a huge part of the election debate. After rejecting a 50p top rate of income tax in 2017-18, despite years of railing against austerity cuts, Sturgeon was accused of timidity and trying to doggy-paddle to independence by playing it safe. Labour say the rich should pay 50p, the Greens 60p. Why stick with 45p?

“I’ve only settled on that for the first year,” she stresses. “I’ve not ruled out going from 45p to 50p after that. I think the top rate should be 50p. I’ve argued that before. I still think that. But if I’ve got advice that says, because we don’t control tax avoidance on income tax, if a small number of people chose to take their earnings out of income tax we could lose revenue, then I can’t just ignore that. If I can be assured that we can mitigate the risk of losing revenue then I would consider putting it from 45p to 50p later in the parliament.”

Isn’t that a false choice? The choice isn’t 45p or 50p. It’s between George Osborne’s rates and ones you set. Why not 46p or 47p or lowering the threshold from £150,000 to £130,000?

“We looked at all of these options. You’re talking 17,000 people [paying 45p in Scotland]. Even if you have no behavioural change, the money you raise is quite limited, and much more limited if you did it by 1p rather than 5p. I’ve got to look at a tax decision based on whether it raises revenue or risks losing revenue. If I’m First Minister, I don’t want to turn round to our health service or education system over the next two or three years and say, ‘I’m sorry but we’ve got less money because of a decision I’ve taken on tax.’”

You don’t think, like the Greens, that a higher top rate is useful to redistribute wealth? “The Greens, and fair play to them for their frankness, have said, ‘Who cares if it loses us money?’ I’m got a lot of admiration for Patrick [Harvie, Green co-convener], but he’s not going to be First Minister. I can’t just say, ‘I don’t care if it loses me money’, because I hope to be setting budgets and taking decisions about our public services for the next five years.”

There’s been controversy this week over the SNP’s hazy plans to reform Scotland’s 32 councils. The manifesto refers to a review of “roles and responsibilities”. Are you also going to review the number? “I think that all comes into it,” she says. Does the same go for health boards? “I think that all comes into it. We’re a country of 5m people. You’ve already got a situation where big chunks of health board responsibilities and big chunks of council responsibilities are integrated now into health and social care partnerships.

“I’m not going to pre-empt the outcome. But I do think, periodically, any country that’s sensible... takes a look and says, ‘Is the way we do things fit for purpose?’”

Will there be an independence referendum in the next parliament? “I would like there to be. But I can’t answer that question with a straightforward Yes or No.” Does the manifesto commit you to one? “It doesn’t, no. The manifesto says, In these circumstances it would be right to seek, or for the Scottish Government to have the right to propose, a referendum in the next parliament. If those circumstances don’t arise, then it wouldn’t be.”

But during last year's general election you said, “If the people of Scotland don’t vote for a party with a commitment in a manifesto to a referendum, there won’t be another referendum.” So how could there be one? “Well, but, there is a commitment in certain circumstances.”

You said it wasn’t a commitment. “You’re now trying to just play with words here, Tom,” she says, even though they’re her words. “If there is clear majority support for independence, or the example I give of a material change of circumstances, coming out of Europe, I think there should be a referendum on independence. Without tying ourselves in knots over particular words, I think anybody reading that manifesto knows very clearly what it means.”

You said, “If the people of Scotland don’t vote for a party with a commitment in a manifesto to a referendum, there won’t be another referendum.” Isn’t it you that’s tying yourself in knots?

“No. The manifesto puts forward the circumstances in which I think, over the next parliament, or in a subsequent parliament, it would be right to have another referendum.”

But, as you said, it’s not a commitment. “I am committed to having a referendum when I think there is majority support for that,” she says. “I would be committed to having a referendum if I thought the circumstances around material change were right. It’s very clearly set out.”

You’ve previously said you expect a referendum within your lifetime. “Oh yeah.” Do you expect there to be one within your premiership? “I would love there to be.” Do you think it’ll happen? “If you’re asking me, Do I think it’s more likely than not? Yes.” So on a balance of probability, you think there will be a referendum while you’re First Minister? “I would like to think that’s the case. If I can’t persuade more people than we persuaded in 2014 of the case for independence then there won’t be. But if we can then I think there will be.”

So much for David Cameron’s belief that the SNP will give up on Indyref2 and settle for “Scotland-lite”. Sturgeon’s comment means she won’t just be promoting independence this summer, she expects to go on and succeed where Salmond failed and deliver it.

Labour, the LibDems and Greens all propose a ban on fracking, while the SNP say they’ll wait to see scientific research after the election. Your manifesto says that unless it can be proved “beyond any doubt” that there is “no risk” to health and the environment fracking won’t happen. That’s nonsensical, isn’t it? Science can’t offer a degree of assurance like zero risk. It’ll come down to acceptable or unacceptable levels of risk. What level of risk do you mean?

“I don’t accept your characterisation.” But you can’t eliminate risk from human enterprise. So when you say no risk it’s not a practical measure, is it? “If there is a substantial risk to the environment,” she says, shifting ground. Ah, that’s different, isn’t it? What level of risk? “I’m not a scientist. If there is a risk to our environment there will be no fracking.” You mean any risk whatsoever? “Everybody accepts a level of risk. I’m not talking about a negligible risk that you take every time you cross the road.”

Returning to the election, there’s been a lot of debate in the Yes movement about how best to use the list vote. How many Green or RISE MSPs would you like to see in parliament? “I don’t think about that. I just want to see as many SNP MSPs as possible.” The logic of ‘Both Votes SNP’ is that you’d like to see zero. “I want to see as many SNP MSPs as possible.”

Why should the SNP be the sole arm of the Yes movement at Holyrood? “This is not a referendum, it’s an election. I think the SNP’s the best party to govern the country. I think I‘m the best candidate for First Minister. If that’s what you want as a voter, if you don’t give both of your votes to the SNP you’re taking a chance on that.” Are you just being greedy? “It’s trying to win an election. You don’t elect any party to government by voting for another party.”

Do you think Labour will come third? “I’m still sceptical about it, very sceptical,” she says. Do you feel sorry for Kezia Dugdale? For the first time in the interview, Sturgeon becomes reflective and the personal comes to the fore rather than the political.

“Put it this way. I stood for the leadership in 2004 when I was the same age Kez is now. It didn’t turn out that way, and Alex came back. That’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know that I’d be here just now, doing what I’m doing, if I’d become leader of the SNP then. For a whole variety of reasons. The timing, but also my own personal development and resilience and experience. Talent is really important in politics, but experience is also really important. Looking at it purely from her best interests and point of view, I would have said she probably would have been better if she’d had a few more years.”

A curveball to finish. The SNP has seen a lot of infighting recently, particularly in Lanarkshire, and chief executive Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband, is under fire for failing to act.

Would you ever sack the party chief executive? “If I thought it was merited.” You would sack your husband? “We’ve got internal systems in the SNP. It would be the National Executive Committee that took that decision.” Are you worried something’s going to come out the woodwork in Lanarkshire? She refuses to get drawn into the “realms of the hypothetical”, but adds: “As First Minister, I will always act in the best interests of the country. As party leader, I will always act in the best interests of the party, and if that sometimes means taking difficult, unpalatable decisions I will never shy away from that.”

She may look relaxed, but don’t be fooled. The current and future First Minister is tough as one of Ruth Davidson’s tanks. The next five years will see the battle for independence rejoined.