Sturgeon vows to hold second independence referendum before 2021”, said the news report after her Holyrood statement on Wednesday. Only she didn't. All she did was promise to put through a Bill that would cover the conduct of a referendum if the UK Government were to allow it, which it won't.

“We do not need a transfer of power, such as a Section 30 order, to pass such a framework Bill”, she said, stating the obvious, “though we would need it to put beyond doubt or challenge our ability to apply the Bill to an independence referendum.” The language of her Holyrood statement was opaque but the meaning is clear: as far as the First Minister is concerned, Section 30 still rules.

She confirmed this later in her speech when she said “We will seek agreement [from Westminster] to a transfer of power at an appropriate point during or shortly after the Bill's passage”. Such agreement to a Section 30 order will not be forthcoming, at least not from the current prime minister or any of her likely successors.

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Some believe that an incoming Labour government, dependent on SNP votes in Parliament, might be prepared to concede a referendum before 2021. But this is most unlikely, even if there were time.

In 2015, the former Labour leader Ed Miliband said he wouldn't even talk about forming a confidence and supply coalition in Westminster with the SNP, let alone agree to a referendum. Labour is a unionist party, and there would be massive opposition, not just from north of England MPs, if Jeremy Corbyn facilitated the break up of the UK in the middle of the chaos of Brexit.

Now, I am not saying that Nicola Sturgeon is wrong in side-stepping any firm commitment to a referendum before 2021. It would probably lead to a defeat. Opinion polls have hardly moved since 2014. According to Sir John Curtice's “What Scotland Thinks” blog, the 13 opinion polls on independence in 2018 indicated that the support for Scotland becoming an independent country remains static at 45%, with No still 55%. The latest YouGov poll in the times has Yes up significantly at 49% against 51% still against independence. But a Survation poll indicates that only a fifth of Scots voters want a referendum before 2021.

So, Sturgeon is right to resist calls from SNP activists on social media to hold a gung ho referendum before the voters are ready. I just wish she would come out and say it. The First Minister used to be an honest speaker who said what she meant, scorned waffle and spin, and wasn't afraid to face harsh realities. To see her resort to weasel words and obfuscation is saddening.

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There really is no need. The SNP membership, represented at their conference this weekend, are mostly sensible people. They talk to real voters, not just hot heads on Twitter, and they hear what ordinary people say: which is that they do not want to have to go through another divisive and exhausting referendum while the Brexit imbroglio is occupying their waking hours. They know there can anyway be no Scottish referendum before 2021, because the UK Government will refuse any Section 30 Order allowing one.

David Lidington, the Deputy Prime Minister, made this clear last week arguing, with some justification, that there was no clear demand for independence right now. The Scottish government could of course mount an “advisory” referendum of its own, but that would be meaningless because most unionists would boycott it, and Westminster would refuse to recognise the result. The constitution is a reserved power.

There are some SNP supporters on Twitter who think that she should declare UDI, “dissolve the union”, or announce that Scotland will be independent if it wins a majority of MPs in the next election. But the First Minster knows Scotland is not prepared to back a revolutionary seizure of power, and suffer the chaos and disruption that would follow. Nicola Sturgeon is a small "c" conservative, not a populist risk-taker. She will always do it by the book.

The First Minister will presumably now put an independence referendum at the top of the SNP manifesto for the 2021 elections, and use an election victory to back an application for Section 30 Order for a referendum to be held around 2024, 10 years after the last one. This would be on the basis of the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012, which established a clear precedent for Scots to be given a say on their future.

But if this is what she has in mind, why doesn't she come out and say it? Why give the ammunition to the opposition parties by talking about a referendum you don't really intend to hold? Play acting will only antagonise voters and make an SNP victory in 2021 less likely.

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In the meantime, Sturgeon has quite reasonably proposed cross-party talks on federalism, commending the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser's proposal to turn the House of Lords into a regionally-elected senate. But we have been here many times before, and England has shown little interest in federalism. And I'm not sure how serious she is about outsourcing the constitution – would the SNP accept the result? Her members would surely rebel if she appeared to abandon independence in favour of more powers for Holyrood.

The FM also announced a Citizens' Assembly to map the way forward for Scotland in the wake of Brexit. The model is Ireland, where a randomly selected group of voters, chaired by a judge, helped build consensus for abortion reform and same-sex marriage. But a truly representative Citizens' Assembly is likely to tell the Scottish Government what they already know, which is that there isn't a majority for independence at the moment.

Actually, Scotland has already had a Citizens' Assembly. It was called the Scottish Civic Forum and was set up in 1999 as a public consultation body by the Scottish Parliament. Chaired by Campbell Christie of the STUC, the forum held discussions on matters like the ban on smoking in public places. But it was never entirely clear what its status was, it didn't catch the public imagination and the Forum collapsed in 2005 after the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition cut its funding.

Perhaps its time has come again, though cynics will see this as just another version of the National Conversation. If it has any legislative force, the Assembly would become an alternative power-centre to Holyrood, and if it doesn't it will be a talking shop. There is nothing wrong with a talking shop, and a Citizens' Assembly might come up with worthwhile ideas on social policy, but it is not a constitutional convention – an alternative route to independence.

These innovations are not going to satisfy those Nationalists who believe that the First Minister has committed herself to a referendum before her current mandate expires in 2021. This is a party problem, and needs a party solution. By dangling the prospect of an early referendum before her troops, the First Minister is damaging her credibility and storing up trouble for herself when they finally realise that she's not serious.