IF Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the SNP conference in Aberdeen was a balancing act, she managed to walk the length of the tightrope without falling into the crowd.

Her words were nominally for party delegates, but the First Minister also had to keep the wider Yes movement happy on independence without boxing herself in on indyref 2. Her challenge was to navigate a chess board of frustration, edginess and high expectation.

Her anti-Tory rhetoric pleased the faithful. Her call for immigration to be devolved reached out to SNP-sceptic moderates. And her restated promise of a summer “debate” on independence was probably enough for Yes supporters.

However, Sturgeon’s polished speech, delivered with her usual crisp professionalism, masks deep problems for which no obvious solution presents itself.

Elements of the pro-independence coalition are growing increasingly restless over the lack of a timescale for indyref 2. The movement’s left wing is angry about the Growth Commission’s “neo-liberal” economic reboot. Her MSPs feel detached from her leadership. And some of her Cabinet Secretaries are believed to be far from happy.

Meanwhile, SNP MPs are said to feel like courtiers who occasionally get a glimpse into the House of Sturgeon. Other party figures believe SNP headquarters, run by the First Minister’s husband, Peter Murrell, exists to serve the leader. The overwhelming feeling is drift, not dynamism.

Sturgeon’s speech confirmed she is adept at short-term political tactics, but weaker on long-term constitutional strategy. Within hours of the Brexit vote, an energised First Minister fired the starting gun for a second independence referendum, but the move angered swing voters and cost the SNP nearly half a million votes at the general election. She has, in the words of one MSP, been “paralysed” by caution ever since.

Her address yesterday was solid, but the Yes movement was expecting more than an upholstered version of the current position. By urging delegates to focus on the “why” of independence, rather than the “when”, she dropped a big hint that indyref 2 is a distant prospect. SNP insiders believe their leader has lost her confidence.

The First Minister’s strategy appears to be based on waiting for Brexit to turn soft unionist Remainers into nationalists. Alex Salmond tried to mould events, but Sturgeon finds herself at the mercy of a Brexit process she is struggling to shape or influence.

Wise heads believe Sturgeon should rule out another referendum in this Holyrood term and use the next three years to sell a refreshed case for independence. If public opinion shifts, she could fight the 2021 election on a promise of another public vote.

Critics may say such a strategy is politically naive. The SNP will have been in Government for 15 years and, it is credibly argued, wear and tear may deprive the pro-independence parties of their Holyrood majority.

However, last week’s opinion poll, which showed the SNP on over 40 per cent of the vote, was remarkable. Sturgeon is being presented with various options on how to proceed, but patience and a cool head may be the best prescriptions.