NICOLA Sturgeon is “confident” Ian Blackford will defeat an informal election pact made by the pro-Union parties in his Highland constituency.

The First Minister threw her weight behind the SNP’s Westminster leader when she was asked by Scottish Tory interim leader Jackson Carlaw about a possible Labour government support for a second independence referendum.

Speaking at First Minister’s Question in Holyrood, she said: “Actually, the pact that I am most interested in this morning is the one that I read about in The Times between Labour and the Tories to help the Liberal Democrats in Ian Blackford’s seat.

“I am confident that Ian Blackford will see that off without too much difficulty.”

The Times yesterday reported an unofficial pact had been made by the Scottish Tories and Scottish Labour to oust the SNP Westminster leader by giving ground to the LibDems.

It claimed senior figures in the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour believe that Craig Harrow, the LibDem candidate, is on course to topple Blackford in Ross, Skye and Lochaber and have effectively downed tools on campaigning in the constituency.

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The SNP Westminster leader has a majority of almost 6000 but his share of the vote fell by 7.9% in the two years leading up to the 2017 election.

The Tories finished second then, but the seat is considered LibDem heartland and was held by the late Charles Kennedy, the former party leader, for a decade.

He lost it during the SNP surge and the LibDems’ nationwide collapse of 2015. If Blackford is dislodged it will be the second election in two years at which the SNP has lost its Commons leader following Angus Robertson’s defeat by the Conservatives in Moray.

A senior Tory told The Times: “Conservatives on the ground will be sorely tempted to vote LibDem in order to get rid of Ian Blackford. It would be some embarrassment for SNP to lose two Westminster leaders in two elections.”

Privately Labour activists claim that the party will resist putting too much effort into fighting for a constituency likely to be a two-horse race between the SNP and the LibDems. Finishing third would improve their ranking in the seat by one place from 2017.

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A Scottish Labour source told the newspaper that they were seeing “a groundswell of support for the LibDems” and that they expected the contest to be tight between Harrow and Blackford.

Harrow, a former Scottish LibDem party convener, was selected as the party’s candidate in January and recently distributed leaflets stating: “Even my cat

knows it’s between the LibDems and the SNP.”

Miles Briggs, the Conservative MSP for Lothian, has been urging opponents of independence to tactically vote for the party most likely to defeat the SNP using the hashtag #UnionistsUnite on Twitter.

He has, however, exclusively used it to promote seats where the Tories are in contention to win.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the LibDems’ General Election campaign chairman, said that his party was “within striking distance” of reclaiming Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

The party has put the constituency near the top of its target list behind North East Fife, where the SNP’s Stephen Gethins has a majority of just two votes.

“It would be a huge setback for the nationalists if they were to lose their Westminster leader for two elections in a row,” he said.

The Tories have not chosen a candidate yet and Labour has selected John Erskine, who previously worked for Kezia Dugdale, the former Scottish Labour leader, at Holyrood.

An SNP spokesman said the election is a straight fight between the SNP and the Tories.