THERE will not be a second independence referendum before the Holyrood election and Yes supporters should look to the “early 2020s” instead, a former SNP minister has said.

Alex Neil issued the “realistic” assessment despite being a speaker at next month’s Hope over Fear rally, which is backing a referendum as soon as possible.

Titled “this time it’s yes”, the organisers of the annual gathering in Glasgow’s George Square say they “sincerely believe it will be the last rally before Indyref2”.

Illustrating splits in the Yes movement over the timing of a vote, Mr Neil said there was no serious prospect of Indyref2 before the 2021 election.

He said he had told one organiser, the former Socialist MSP and convicted perjurer Tommy Sheridan, how he felt and that was the basis for him speaking on September 15.

Mr Neil, who held cabinet posts under both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, said Theresa May would not grant a Section 30 order giving Holyrood the necessary powers to hold a referendum, and the SNP also needed to do more to prepare the ground for independence.

The strategy should therefore be to seek a clear-cut mandate for a referendum in 2021.

He told the Herald: “I don’t think you can seriously call for a second referendum.

“Nicola has made it clear - in my view, correctly - that she would not call for a second referendum without a Section 30 order from London and quite frankly, as things stand, there’s no prospect of getting that before 2021.

“We should focus on preparing the ground, so that we can have a successful Indyref2 in the early 2020s.”

The Airdrie & Shotts MSP went on: “I’ve made it clear what my position is to Tommy, and I’ve accepted the invitation on the basis that that’s my position. We want to be independent as quickly as possible, but you’ve also got to deal with the realities of life.

“I’m absolutely convinced we can win one [a referendum], but I think the way things are, to get a Section 30 order, we will need to be very explicit in our 2021 manifesto that a vote for the SNP is a vote for Indyref2, and this time probably hold it earlier in the parliament rather than later.”

He said that made the SNP government’s performance over the next three years “critical” in persuading people to get behind independence.

He said: “If the government adopts a successful strategy of delivering on health and education and jobs, that is a prerequisite of a successful outcome of Indyref2. There’s a lot of water to flow under the bridge between now and 2021.”

Ms Sturgeon has said she has a “triple-lock mandate” to call a referendum in the current parliament, and is due to update MSPs on a timetable plans in October.

However she has also said a date requires far greater clarity over Brexit and future UK-EU trade relations, and acknowledged she does not know what she will say in the autumn.

After demanding a fresh referendum in March 2017, she was blindsided by a snap election in which the SNP lost a third of its MPs and had to “reset” her plans.

Mr Neil said the First Minister’s strategy must be flexible enough to cope with a “very fluid political situation”, including the possibility of another Westminster election this year or next.

But with wider Yes movement marches attracting tens of thousands, Ms Sturgeon also faces growing pressure to use her ‘triple lock’ mandate before it expires.

Mr Neil said many of those agitating for a rapid referendum were doing so for the wrong reason - fear of Unionists winning a majority at Holyrood in 2021, rather than the conditions being right to win a Yes vote.

“They are concerned that we might not get a pro-independence majority in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. If you do it for that reason, it’s the wrong reason to do it.

“You’re not doing it because you think you can win the referendum, you’re doing it because you’re feart we’re not going to win the 2021 election.

“The answer to that is, do what you need to do to win the 2021 election to get the mandate to get Indyref2.”

Also due to speak at the Hope Over Fear rally are SNP MSP Sandra White and Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny, who ran unsuccessfully for the SNP deputy leadership earlier this year.

Mr McEleny has repeatedly called for a referendum by the end of 2019.

Mrs May has rejected one call for a Section 30 order, and would doubtless do so again.

However a second rejection could be used by Ms Sturgeon as evidence of a democratic deficit and Westminster high-handedness in the run up to the 2021 election.