NICOLA Sturgeon will tonight try to stop the SNP bleeding yet more support to Alex Salmond's new Alba Party amid public splits in the independence movement, as she takes part in the first televised leaders' debate of the election.

After a flurry of defections and signs the SNP is fracturing on her watch, the First Minister will attempt to reassert control as she responds to her predecessor, his tactics and his motives.

Unlike the other party leaders, who have held online Q&As with broadcast and print media, Ms Sturgeon has yet to face prolonged scrutiny during the campaign.

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Mr Salmond will not feature in tonight's BBC1 debate, chaired by Sarah Smith, but his return to frontline politics is likely to loom large over the event nevertheless.

The former first minister has claimed his list-only Alba Party can complement the SNP by using the Holyrood voting system to elect a pro-Yes "supermajority" in May and so hasten independence.

On Sunday, he said he wanted to help write an updated prospectus for independence and even campaign alongside Ms Sturgeon, despite their bitter falling-out over the way the Scottish Government handled sexual misconduct allegations against him in 2018.

He has asked Yes supporters to vote for the SNP in constituencies and for Alba on the regional lists.

However, addressing the SNP's campaign conference yesterday, Ms Sturgeon urged people to "cast both votes for the SNP on May 6th" to give her a "mandate" for independence.

She also appeared to make a thinly-veiled attack on Mr Salmond, saying she had little time for those who "treat politics like a game" and put "self-interest" above the country's interest.

She announced plans to make ending child poverty a national mission in the next Parliament, and at least one fast track cancer diagnostic centre in each of the 14 regional health boards.

She stressed her experience and willingness to admit and learn from mistakes, and focused on the recovery from the pandemic and independence.

Arguing recovery and independence are intertwined, not a binary choice, she said: "There is a question all of us in Scotland need to ask ourselves.

"Who is best placed to decide and shape the kind of country we want to be after the pandemic - the people of Scotland and governments, of whatever party, elected by us; or Westminster governments and politicians like Boris Johnson? I believe Scotland's recovery should be in Scotland's hands.

"Independence is not a distraction from recovery. It is essential to secure a recovery that is made here in Scotland.

"In an independent Scotland we will have the powers and tools we need to build the country so many of us want to see. Never again will it be possible for a Westminster government to take Scotland in the wrong direction."

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However, Mr Sturgeon remained under pressure from Alba, with the first member of the SNP administration in Glasgow switching to the new party.

The jump by Shettleston councillor Michelle Ferns, the city's workforce convener, followed councillors in Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, national office bearers Lynne Anderson and Caroline McAllister, and MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey jumping ship.

Former Scottish boxing champion Alex Arthur was last night unveiled as an Alba candidate in the Lothians.

After The Herald asked all remaining SNP MPs if they planned to join Mr Salmond's new party, fewer than half replied in order to rule themselves out.

Paisley MP Gavin Newlands said in response: "Not a chance in hell."

He said: "I value integrity, loyalty and my decades long deep commitment to the cause of Scottish independence.

"This new venture, and their overtures to elected representatives, runs entirely inimical to all three."

Glasgow East MP David Linden, who used to employ Ms Ferns, said: "Absolutely not. Instead, I will continue campaigning to re-elect a majority SNP government which can only be achieved by people using both votes for the SNP."

Coatbridge MP Steven Bonnar, who used to employ defector Lynne Anderson, said he was as committed to the SNP now as when he joined a week after the 2014 referendum.

East Dunbartonshire MP Amy Callaghan added: "Absolutely not - I'm fully committed to the SNP."

Speaking ahead of the debate, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: "If the First Minister is serious about our nation's recovery from the pandemic she must put the national interest before the nationalist interest.

"Our only priority must be the national recovery - that's what I'll be focusing on in the debate tonight."

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said Ms Sturgeon's speech boiled down to one single issue, "the SNP's obsession with another divisive independence referendum".

Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign chairman Alistair Carmichael MP said: "In the first leaders' debate, the public will be able to see the contrast between Nicola Sturgeon's independence obsession and Willie Rennie making the case for putting the recovery first.

SNP deputy Keith Brown said: "Nicola Sturgeon is looking forward to the debate, and to making the case that giving both votes to the SNP is the only way to put Scotland's recovery in Scotland's hands - not Boris Johnson's."