There is only one question that matters in Scottish politics in 2021: will there be a firm date for indyref2? And yes, I said something very similar last year, and indeed the year before that. The non-appearance of the independence referendum has been the great shaggy dog story of the last five years, since Nicola Sturgeon first started promising it.

After the Brexit referendum “changed material circumstances” and, in Nicola Sturgeon’s view, rendered the 2014 independence referendum null and void, we’ve had a series of forecasts of a rerun. “I am determined,” she told the SNP conference in October 2016, “that Scotland will have the ability to reconsider the question of independence and do so before the UK leaves the EU.” She then published a new Independence Referendum Bill.

In March 2017, the day before Article 50 on leaving the EU was passed by Parliament, the First Minister formally requested the consent of Westminster to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. Theresa May said: “now is not the time.” The SNP lost a third of its seats in the 2017 snap election that followed.

Undaunted, she unveiled a “reset timetable” for indyref 2 which was now scheduled for the autumn of 2018. When that didn’t happen she moved the dial to the autumn of 2019, but before that date the SNP switched to supporting a People’s Vote for Brexit instead of indyref2. That didn’t happen either. Indeed, the People’s Vote turned into a Tory General Election landslide of December 2019. A triumphant Boris Johnson announced that he was now Minister for the Union and would reject a Scottish independence referendum for “a generation”.

Sturgeon’s latest forecast is for a referendum in the first half of the new Scottish parliamentary cycle – meaning sometime around 2023. You might think that after all these false dawns, independence supporters would have lost hope – but not a bit of it. After every deadline has been missed, support for independence has eventually ticked up.

More voters than ever appear to have been convinced that Scotland should be an independent country. Some 13 polls have shown a majority for Yes, reaching a peak of 58 per cent in a Savanta ComRes poll in mid-December.

Of course, that poll excluded don’t knows, and all recent polls have been conducted under the shadow of Brexit and latterly the pandemic. It is difficult to know just how much of this is actual support for independence and how much is down to loathing of Boris Johnson and Brexit. However, any objective assessment of the polling evidence would have to conclude that independence is gradually becoming the settled will of the Scottish electorate.

This doesn’t mean a referendum is in the bag or even that it will certainly take place. Personally, I think the odds of a legally-binding referendum being held in the next decade are fairly remote. This is because the Conservatives now have a very solid majority in Westminster, despite losing a raft of Scottish MPs in 2019.

Boris Johnson is triumphant after his Brexit deal and will argue that there is no justification for holding a “divisive” referendum to break up Britain at the very moment the UK is going through the complex process of rebuilding after the twin shocks of Covid and Brexit.

The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is also of this view. He is promising further devolution instead of a referendum and has enlisted one of the stars of the 2014 Better Together campaign, the former PM Gordon Brown, to front it. That is the surest sign that, unlike Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer is not prepared to flirt with independence.

So, even if the SNP win the expected landslide in the May Scottish elections, the prospect of Westminster agreeing a legally binding referendum on Scottish independence is remote.

Nor will there be much enthusiasm in Brussels for Scottish secession, now that a Brexit deal is in place. Those politicians in the European Parliament who had been saying they’d changed their minds about Scottish independence were mostly playing a tactical game to discredit Brexit. Countries like France and Spain are as resolutely opposed to “separatism” as ever, and are not going to allow Brussels to get involved in the internal politics of a country no longer in the European Union.

Nicola Sturgeon has always said that the independence referendum has to be “beyond legal challenge” – in other words, expressly authorised by Westminster through a Section 30 Order.

She is not interested in declaring UDI after a General Election victory or staging a wildcat referendum of the kind held by Catalonia in 2017. That led to the incarceration of many of the referendum organisers and the self-exile of the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont.

The First Minister is the queen of caution. But that doesn’t mean she’ll do nothing. Her personal popularity has never been higher following her handling of the pandemic, and the SNP has a commanding lead in the opinion polls. The FM is fully aware of just how difficult it is to win an absolute majority in a proportional parliament.

But she will probably secure the support of the Greens at Holyrood for a referendum.

So what happens then? Joanna Cherry MP, one of the stars of the anti-Brexit court actions, hopes that she will take on the Westminster Government in the Supreme Court, if Boris refuses to accept the Scottish Government’s “mandate” for a referendum.

It is clear, under the UK constitution, that Holyrood has no power to hold a legally binding referendum on independence, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hold a consultative or advisory ballot asking the Scottish people what they want.

There is a chance that the courts would agree that Holyrood has the power to hold a nationwide opinion poll.

But would that make any difference? The Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, is promising to boycott any such advisory referendum and is calling on Unionists not to participate in it. Even some supporters of independence might think that now is just the wrong time to be holding a divisive referendum. It could lead to a repeat of the Catalan situation in 2017 when their referendum was condemned as unrepresentative because unionist voters refused to vote.

Nationalists might say: a vote’s a vote and if people don’t take the opportunity of expressing a view they can’t complain about the result.

But it is not Holyrood they need to convince but Westminster. Boris Johnson would use a half-baked referendum result to rule out a referendum even more emphatically than before, and Keir Starmer would back him.

We are in a strange limbo, therefore. There is no obvious reason to expect a Scottish referendum in the near future and yet almost everyone does. There is no politically plausible route. However, politics is very fluid right now. We live in turbulent times.

Support is clearly rising and it may be that a mass movement of Scottish opinion exerts moral pressure on the Westminster establishment to change its mind. But in the meantime, it’s business as usual. Scotland will just have to fake it till she makes it.