NICOLA Sturgeon is preparing to put the issue of a second independence referendum literally on the ballot paper at May’s Holyrood election, the Herald can reveal.

The SNP has asked watchdogs for permission to use two phrases featuring the abbreviation “IndyRef2” alongside its name on the official voting slips.

The party has applied to the Electoral Commission to register “Vote SNP for IndyRef2” and “Both Votes SNP for IndyRef2” as ways of describing itself.

It has also asked to register “Nicola Sturgeon for SNP First Minister” as a third new party description.

None of the applications, disclosed in an obscure public notice by the Commission last week, mentions economic recovery from the pandemic.

The move follows the UK Conservatives and Liberal Democrats recently applying to register anti-referendum descriptions for their parties which mention the recovery.

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Ms Sturgeon has said she wants Scotland to have a choice on leaving the UK and turning more towards Europe in the first half of the next parliament, which runs to 2026.

Putting the word IndyRef2 on the ballot paper would effectively turn the election into a referendum on whether to have that referendum.

Boris Johnson has so far refused to grant Holyrood referendum powers, saying the No result of 2014 should stand for a generation.

But if the SNP won a majority with IndyRef2 literally on the ballot, she would be able to claim a clear mandate for a re-run of the 2014 vote.

However the prominent focus on IndyRef2, and the failure to mention the recovery, could also play into the hands of the SNP's opponents.

Unionist parties are already trying to portray the SNP as obsessed with the constitution and say rebuilding the economy after Covid should come first.

A new Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times at the weekend found only a quarter of Scots wanted a new referendum within a year, with a further 30% backing one before 2026.

HeraldScotland: Proposed SNP ballot paper descriptions. Source: Electoral CommissionProposed SNP ballot paper descriptions. Source: Electoral Commission

The slogans could also trip up Ms Sturgeon if, as in 2016, she fell short of a majority, as they link only SNP votes to IndyRef2, not a pro-independence combination of SNP and Green.

The Commission is likely to take several weeks before deciding whether to grant permission for the SNP's plans.

Although IndyRef2 is common shorthand on social media and in print, the Commission would have to be satisfied that it would not lead to any confusion among voters.

However, even if refused permission to put the descriptions on the ballot paper, the SNP could still use them in campaign literature and adverts.

Every political party is allowed to register up to 12 party descriptions, which can refer to specific elections, policies or candidates.

At the 2016 election, neither of the SNP’s descriptions referred to the constitution - it chose “Scottish National Party – Stronger for Scotland” and “Scottish National Party (Leader – Nicola Sturgeon)”.

These are still, currently, its only official descriptions.

However in recent weeks, other parties have updated their slogans in light of Covid as May 6 approaches.

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As the Herald revealed last month, the UK Conservatives have applied to register “End Division, No Referendum, Rebuild Scotland” and “Not Another Referendum, Time for Recovery”, while the UK LibDems have applied to register the more subtle “Scottish Liberal Democrats - Put Recovery First”.

Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign chair Alistair Carmichael MP said: "Voters can see in black and white that the SNP are prepared to put another independence referendum ahead of health and education and jobs.

"Another referendum won't get a single operation back on track or improve a single child's education.

"Scottish Liberal Democrats are committed to putting the recovery first, with new plans to boost mental health, rebuild our education system and deliver new, green, high-skilled jobs for Scotland."

Speaking to the media yesterday after his party’s virtual conference. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “All the studies have shown it will be years before our economy gets back to pre-pandemic levels.

"If the SNP and other parties who support independence really think now is the time to take forward their plans for separation, then I think they have misjudged the mood of people across Scotland.

“We believe that division within Scotland is the last thing anyone needs rights now, and the focus of our parliament and all our political parties should be on our recovery.”