THE SNP is heading for its best ever result in a Holyrood election despite controversy and infighting over Alex Salmond, according to a new poll.

The Panelbase survey for the Sunday Times suggested the party would get a record 70 MSPs in next year’s election, provided it goes ahead as planned in light of the coronavirus crisis.

That would be one more seat than the SNP achieved in its unprecedented majority in 2011, and put a second independence referendum firmly back on the agenda.

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Reflecting a pattern seen in December’s general election, the SNP’s vote has increased at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, which have both declined.

The survey of 1023 adults in Scotland between March 24 and 26 is the the first since Mr Salmond’s acquittal on 13 sexual assault charges last week.

Mr Salmond signalled after the verdicts that he intended to reveal new evidence, excluded from his trial on legal grounds, of a conspiracy to discredit him.

His supporters claim senior figures in the Scottish Government and SNP were part of a concerted effort to block his return to frontline politics by the dirtiest means possible.

There have also been calls for the SNP to readmit Mr Salmond as a member before the August date laid down in the party’s rules and for him to return to Holyrood.

However, the survey suggests his reputation has been dented by the trial, in which even his defence admitted he could have been a better man and could behave inappropriately.

The poll found 46% of respondents felt no differently about Mr Salmond after his trial.

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However 41% felt more negatively towards him and only 13% felt more positive about him.

Nicola Sturgeon’s reputation appears largely unaffected by the trial, with 21% of people saying they felt more negatively towards her, and 22% feeling more positive.

She has also been credited with responding well to the pandemic, with a net rating of +54 compared to +17 for Boris Johnson and -55 for Donald Trump.

Despite the feuding unleashed by the trial, Panelbase found 51 per cent support for the SNP on the Holyrood constituency vote, up 8 points on their last poll in November.

Jackson Carlaw’s Tories were unchanged on 26%, Labour were down five on 14%, the LibDems down two on 6% and the Greens up one on 3%.

On the list vote, the SNP were up 10 points to 48%, the Tories unchanged on 26%, Labour down five on 13%, the LibDems down three on 6%, and the Greens unchanged on 6%.

The figures translate into the SNP winning 70 of Holyrood’s 129 seats, the Tories getting 35 (+4 on 2016), Labour 16 (-8), the LibDems unchanged on 5 and the Greens 3 (-3).

The poll also recorded a shift towards a Yes vote on independence, with support for leaving the UK up two points to 49% and support for the Union down two points to 51%.

Ms Sturgeon recently gave up on her plan for Indyref2 later this year because of coronavirus, although it had already been blocked by Mr Johnson.

A second SNP majority win at Holyrood would put huge pressure on the Prime Minister to change his mind.

However the 2021 Holyrood election could yet be postponed because of the pandemic.

Professor Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University told the Sunday Times he believed neither the trail nor Covi-19 had significantly changed the political weather.

However the SNP continued to benefit from its opposition to Brexit.

SNP Depute Leader Keith Brown said: “This poll shows that support for the SNP is continuing to grow to historically high levels, as people continue to put their trust in the party to deliver for and protect Scotland. 

“It also shows very strong public support for Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership and handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as the Scottish Government does everything it can to help and protect people, communities and businesses through the crisis.

“While taking nothing for granted, this strengthened support would translate to a record number of seats in Holyrood and sees opposition parties trailing far behind Scotland’s party of government.”