THE candidate tipped to become Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP deputy has said the party must get ready for a second referendum, but dodged the question of a date.

Economy Secretary Keith Brown was reacting to a call by one of his rivals for the deputy leadership, councillor Chris McEleny, to hold a fresh vote next year.

Amid bad-tempered divisions in the Yes movement, Mr McEleny this week became the first one of the trio vying for the position to take a clear stand on the timing.

Call vote on Scottish independence within 18 months, urges candidate for top SNP job

The leader of the SNP group in Inverclyde, he said Scotland could not afford to wait any longer while the UK government imposed a hard Brexit and other unwanted policies.

“That is why we should be independent and that is why I believe we should have a referendum on our independence within the next 18 months,” he said.

Activist Julie Hepburn, who is also running to be SNP depute leader, said in response: “We shouldn't bind ourselves to any strict time frame for holding an independence referendum, but look to go for it when we have the best chance of winning.”

Now Mr Brown, asked for his view on timing, has taken a similar non-committal line.

He said: “We've got to be ready before the next referendum is called.

“The party and its organisation has to be ready to campaign in that referendum and that's the task we face now - getting ready.

"That's why readiness is at the heart of my campaign - readiness for elections and referendums, readiness for campaigning. We need training for activists and we need to refresh our organisational structure, we need party HQ on a permanent campaigning footing.

“Whenever we go into any campaign what will matter will be our readiness - if we're not ready we won't win and I want to win. That's my message to SNP members - let's get ready."

New referendum split surfaces among SNP MPs

Mr McEleny, who got just over 3 per cent of members’ votes when he stood for the depute leadership in 2016, said he had received a great deal of support for his referendum position.

A vote for him in the contest should be read as a vote for a plebiscite next year, he said.

Pete Wishart, the SNP’s most senior MP, was forced to appeal for calm and unity at the weekend after being abused online for urging a “pragmatic” approach to a referendum.

He was called an “Etonian boot licker” after warning against a push for a fresh vote without clear public support, arguing a second defeat would set the Yes movement back “decades”.

Unionist campaign splits over Brexit and second referendum

However he was swiftly contradicted by his Westminster colleague Angus Brendan MacNeil.

The Western Isles MP said he wanted a referendum within 18 months and that, despite most Scots opposing one, “energy and enthusiasm will begin” once a date was set.

Ms Sturgeon called for a second referendum in March 2017 but “reset” her plans after the SNP lost a third of its MPs in the June election, and is due to update MSPs “on the precise timescale for offering people a choice over the country’s future” in the autumn.