NOW we’re coming to the crunch. If Nicola Sturgeon still insists next week on the pretence of an independence referendum this year, she has to change gear from rhetoric to action.

It will no longer be enough to huff and puff about Boris Johnson.

Very soon she will have to switch on the government and legislative machinery required for a vote she surely knows isn’t coming.

Campaign organisations would have to be created, rules drawn up, the question tested, returning officers and the police put on notice.

Complaining about the Prime Minister’s refusal to give Holyrood the power to hold a legal referendum would not advance the charade.

Crucially, if Ms Sturgeon intends to stick to her line of Indyref2 in late 2020, she will have to start spending large amounts of public money.

To do so on a cynical stunt would invite a backlash from the electorate.

Voters aren’t impressed by their taxes being spent for performative reasons, or as part of blatant SNP electioneering for 2021.

Printing and distributing the independence White Paper of 2014 cost £1.3m alone, for instance.

READ MORE: Iain Macwhirter: In post-Brexit Britain, Nicola Sturgeon can't keep telling her troops that Indyref2 is round the corner. It isn't

Nor would they be impressed by Ms Sturgeon pressing on out of petulance, naivete or deluded egotism.

We will know more when the First Minister updates Holyrood on her “next steps” on Wednesday.

It will be a big moment. It will, above all, be a test of her judgment.

If she persists in the fiction that she can have Indyref2 this year, her reputation may never recover.

You can see why it’s hard to admit the game’s a bogie though.

Besides letting down the SNP members she has marched up so many hills, Ms Sturgeon said a vote for the SNP last month would stop Brexit, stop Boris, and deliver Indyref2.

The first and second didn’t pan out, leaving her clinging to the third.

If she gives up on that too, it’s three strikes. Not a good look for a leader under daily attack for over-promising and under-delivering in government.

But a wistful climbdown is surely better than a damaging pantomime.

After all, when she hit pause on independence for two years after the 2017 snap election, she ultimately went on to greater success.

It’s hard to see who Ms Sturgeon could even convince. Not even SNP HQ appears to believe her timetable.

Last week a number of former party luminaries said the Yes movement needed a new campaign vehicle, something like Yes Scotland in 2014.

But while the legal entity behind Better Together was dissolved after the No vote, Yes Scotland actually lives on, maintained in a state of suspended animation at Companies House by the SNP’s in-house solicitor.

It could be cranked back to life if wanted. Instead, it gathers dust.

Then there are the campaign website names the SNP bought on the back of the Brexit referendum.

You may remember the party launched a £1m fundraiser through the website after Ms Sturgeon first announced in March 2017 that she intended to hold Indyref2.

It has since fallen into disuse.

The SNP also bought and as part of its push.

The ownership has been allowed to lapse and both are up for sale again.

Nor is there a refreshed case for independence, and time is flying by.

The SNP has yet to prepare public opinion for its new position on adopting a Scottish currency as soon as practicable after independence.

It has not said how it would respond to Brexit, particularly how it would handle trade and customs arrangements with England if it was out of the EU and Scotland rejoined.

“If we go into a referendum offering a hard border at Gretna we’re f***ed,” as one SNP MSP puts it.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon: Scotland redefining what it means to be successful nation 

Indeed, it’s hard to see how anyone could offer such plans until we know what Brexit looks like - after the UK-EU trade talks this year.

Then there is White Paper 2.

It was reported yesterday that Ms Sturgeon’s officials continue to revise the slab-like prospectus of 2014 to ensure Scots can make “an informed choice over the future of our country”.

The Tories were duly outraged at this, given Mr Johnson’s rejection of referendum powers for Holyrood.

I was not at all outraged. As independence is the government’s avowed policy, it is natural for it to task civil servants with developing that policy. But where is it?

The original White Paper was published almost 300 days before the 2014 referendum to give voters time to study its 650 pages.

As Ms Sturgeon holds up that referendum as the “gold standard” template for the next one, it would seem White Paper 2 is already late.

Agreed, there are 340 days left in 2020. But December and November aren’t candidates for Indyref2 because of Christmas and the massive COP26 climate conference in Glasgow draining police resources.

The last practical date would be October, and that means there is already less time to study any new White Paper than last time.

Yet the Scottish Government said only this week, in response to a freedom of information request, that it would be updating the White Paper “over the next few months”.

So if it ever does emerge, there may be only half the time of 2014 to come to “an informed choice”, plus it would be full of holes about Brexit.

It would hardly be an advert for efficient, joyous government outside the Union - and that’s before the stooshie about the bill for printing it and getting it to every household.

Ms Sturgeon would be accused of taunting taxpayers with their own cash, sending them a non-prospectus for a non-referendum.

The First Minister is a formidable politician. Her opponents may criticise her record and goals, but they respect and envy her ability.

They would not characterise her as slapdash or unprofessional.

But if she were to blow millions on a rush-job White Paper without a legal referendum in sight, or play to impatient Yessers by attempting a hillbilly referendum of her own, that respect would be lost overnight.

She would be damned as cavalier, a loose cannon not to be trusted with devolution far less independence.

Ms Sturgeon won’t like it, but her choice is between retreat now with dignity or retreat later without it.