SCOTTISH politics looks rather different than it did this time last week. The Derek Mackay story has caused the SNP a short-term media headache and the Scottish Government a medium-term ministerial portfolio dilemma.

But it has also created a concern amongst some that there may be long-term damage inflicted on the SNP and the independence movement, with more problems than they are accustomed to simmering malevolently. Mackay. Salmond. Schools. Hospitals. Ferries.

This is emphatically not a Government in trouble; no party polling consistently above 40 per cent after 13 years in Government, and certain to emerge from the next election as the largest party, can credibly be said to be in trouble. But it is a Government enduring a period of policy and internal difficulties the likes of which it has not seen since it replaced Labour as “Scotland’s party” in 2007.

The Scottish Tories are hoping that difficulties turn into crisis, and crisis turns into defeat. They have a vision – a hope – that the Mackay story, next month’s trial of Mr Salmond, and anything else which emerges now that the media has the scent of sleaze in its nostrils, could create a narrative which might just turn the tide against the SNP.

One can be sure that nothing else will. Whilst some Tories see the perceived mounting doubt over the SNP’s domestic record as a route to power, most realise that it is nowhere near sufficient to eject them from office. If the SNP is to lose in May (the chances of which are slim and none and, as they say, slim left town) it’ll be a personality issue, not a policy one.

What a backdrop for the Scottish Tories’ new leader to take office on Valentine’s Day, with the top task to avoid a Unionist massacre in just over 14 months. Barring an upset of Leicester City proportions, that new leader will be Jackson Carlaw.

Mr Carlaw is a highly accomplished politician who has acquitted himself well in both of his caretaker stints. He is personable, excellent company in private, and his decency carries into the public sphere, where he treats opponents with a level of respect not entirely replicated across the Parliament. But he has a ruthless streak, as we saw at First Minister’s Questions last Thursday when he went for the First Minister’s jugular on Mr Mackay.

He may need that ruthless streak. For he will enter what may quietly but suddenly become the most important year the Scottish Tory Party has had.

For whilst the party may be attracted to a campaign based on the perceived policy failings of the SNP, in the real world, and in real politics, there is only one issue at the Holyrood 2021 election, and that is indyref 2.

The Tories’ strategic positioning on a second independence referendum is highly likely to be the key determinant of its success at that election, which would be fine but for one thing; they can’t agree amongst themselves on what it should be. Not only that, but the positions are becoming so entrenched that I think there is a decent chance agreement will not be found.

There are, broadly, two camps; let’s call them the Ayes and the Noes. They agree one one thing, that the top priority is to stop nationalist parties winning a Holyrood majority. But beyond that, they differ.

The Ayes accept that if the SNP (and if necessary the Greens) win a majority on a clear manifesto pledge to agitate for a second referendum, in an election in which everyone understands what they are voting for, then the referendum must be given.

They see a persistent refusal to accept the verdict of the Scottish people as a continuation of the failed strategies of the past, whereby London thinks it is “winning” by saying no to the SNP, while it is in fact fomenting discord and pushing moderates towards nationalism, repelled by centralisation and a lack of respect for Scotland.

More acutely, they see the “no to Indyref 2” strategy as a vote loser. This is counter-intuitive, but with perhaps 20 per cent of voters committed to voting Conservative, the party is depending on another 10-or-so per cent of Labour and LibDem-voting Unionists to vote Tory rather than staying put, staying at home, or voting SNP.

To attract these people, they need the threat of Indyref 2 to be on the table. In December’s General Election, these Unionists were reassured by Boris Johnson’s guarantee that there would be no Indyref 2, and accordingly did not feel compelled to vote Tory to stop it. There was no threat, so there was no compulsion. Several MPs lost their seats as a direct consequence.

So the Ayes believe that not only is accepting Indyref 2 after an SNP victory democratically right, it is also electorally smart.

But then there are the Noes. The Noes are scarred by the “near miss” at the first independence referendum. Although not all accept how poor the 2014 Downing Street campaign was, they know they don’t want to do it again. Some are opposed primarily out of a deep pessimism about their chances of winning, but the greater number oppose the concept of Indyref 2 for the more noble reason that they see the extensive rupture that the issue continues to cause in Scottish politics and in Scottish public life, and they fear a deepening of the divide.

They also tend to see the SNP as a party on the way down, and eventually out. They believe that if they hold firm and create a competent-looking alternative government, the SNP will eventually fizzle out and lose an election, after which the independence issue is dead.

They also believe that the “no, never” strategy gives the SNP more or a problem than it gives them. If the SNP wins a majority in 2021 and the Prime Minister still says no, what is the First Minister to do? She could “do a Catalonia”, but everyone knows that she won’t, because she will lose all the international respect and legitimacy which she has worked so hard to build.

So, the Noes suppose, the SNP will simply dial up the grievance agenda and double-down on perpetually talking about Indyref 2. The people will tire, won’t they?

The fascinating truth of this Tory dilemma is that both the Ayes and the Noes have credible points. Either could be right, in the final analysis. But they have to choose. Quickly.

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters

Read more: How do Unionists solve a problem like a Nationalist majority?