Theresa May was clutching at straws when she claimed that the Conservatives had saved the Union, Scotland's First Minister said.

Nicola Sturgeon dismissed the declaration that the Prime Minister made at Tory conference in Manchester while holding aloft the hand of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

The SNP leader insisted that the case for Scotland being independent had "arguably never been greater" with Brexit looming - but she appeared to push back the point at which she would consider the timing of a second independence referendum.

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In June, the First Minister announced a "reset" of the timing for a fresh vote on Scotland's place in the UK, saying it was likely that the Scottish Government's view on this would be set out in the autumn of 2018.

However, she said clarity on what the UK's Brexit deal would be may not emerge until the end of next year, potentially leaving the decision on the timing of a second referendum until then.

The First Minister was speaking on ITV's Peston On Sunday as SNP activists gathered in Glasgow for the party's conference.

When Mrs May's "We saved the Union" comment was put to her, Ms Sturgeon said: "I think it's called clutching at straws."

She added: "On the question of independence, when I watch and when many people watch the utter chaos that is now engulfing the UK, when we look forward and see the implications of Brexit, that slow motion car crash that is developing right now, then actually the case for Scotland being in control of our destiny, having control over the decisions that shape our lives, has arguably never been greater and that's a case I will continue to make."

But she stated: "There is a sense that because of the uncertainty of Brexit, because things feels to be up in the air right now, it is premature to effectively set a date right now, we need to let the dust settle.

"That is what I have accepted."

Ms Sturgeon had originally wanted to hold a second vote on independence sometime between autumn 2018 and the spring of 2019, but reconsidered this after the SNP lost 21 MPs in June's snap general election.

But she was clear that having a vote on leaving the UK must remain an option for Scotland - where 62% of voters backed Remain in 2016 - so the country could avoid a Brexit "disaster".

The First Minister said: "Brexit is not a circumstance I want to be in. I think the whole thing is a disaster and I think it is going to get worse. So I've tried to judge things as best as I can based on the best interests of Scotland.

"I think we will have to have some clarity towards the end of next year, because the exit point is March 2019 and Europe says, and I think Theresa May accepts this, there will be a period of ratification of whatever has been agreed. I think that is the point to take a fresh look at it, at timing."

While the Spanish government declared the Catalan independence referendum illegal, Ms Sturgeon said the precedent set in the 2014 vote, which had been agreed by both the UK and Scottish governments, was the "best way to do it"

She stated: "That precedent is there and that is the one we should seek to have used when we look at these issues again."

With the UK due to leave the European Union in March 2019, Ms Sturgeon was clear she did "not want Scotland to feel as if it's got no options but to accept a bad deal".

The First Minister said: "I have a mandate, a hard-won mandate in an election reinforced since then, to give people a choice over our future once we do know the terms of Brexit, whether that is a deal, no deal, or a terrible deal look like.

"That is the option that has to be there for Scotland. Not to have the inevitability of being taken down a damaging path by Westminster but to have the option of choosing something different.

"I won't consider the timing of that until we've got that clarity, but it has to be an option for people because otherwise we are in this position of having no control over our own future."

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Scottish Liberal Democrat general election campaign chairman Alex Cole-Hamilton called on the First Minister to scrap plans for a second referendum.

He said: "After losing so many seats at the general election, Nicola Sturgeon should rule out another independence referendum.

"The SNP have stage-managed this conference to avoid embarrassing Nicola Sturgeon over the loss of seats brought about by her insistence on an unwanted and unwelcome second independence referendum."

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