If Nicola Sturgeon is planning a “lifeboat” referendum on independence before the UK leaves the EU in March, as the Western Isles MP Angus MacNeill believes, she's doing so very quietly. No one seriously expects the First Minister, at the SNP conference this week, to announce that “precise timescale” for indyref2 she promised in June last year, after she “reset” it. The FM said she’d give the new timeable in autumn 2018 “at the end of negotiations with the EU when terms of Brexit are clear”. They're as clear as mud, and getting muddier.

Yet, arguably the case for Scots to be given a choice is all the greater. Theresa May is dancing, mindlessly, towards a No Deal Brexit, her Chequers project dead in the water. Labour is now calling for a possible referendum on the EU but doesn't know what the question should be. Talks in Brussels are stalled over the Irish Border backstop and the EU's refusal to open the single market to British goods unless Britain actually joins it. Fantasists like Boris Johnson are promoting a Supercanada option even few Tories believe.

Meanwhile the UK government is doing contingency planning for food shortages and civil unrest. It is an unholy mess – “the most unhinged act of national self sabotage in living memory”, as the Glasgow University Principal, Sir Anton Muscatelli, eloquently put it. You want to scream: get out now!

Scotland will crash out of the European Union in less than six months. But there is zero prospect of a Scottish independence referendum before then. Theresa May has blocked it and Ms Sturgeon isn't going to risk an unauthorised ballot Catalonian-style. Nor will the PM, or whoever succeeds her, likely agree to a referendum during the transition period which will last until 2021. Indeed the Tories in Birmingham were ruling out any Scottish referendum before 2027.

The SNP membership seem to have understood this harsh reality. At any rate, there seems to be no serious dissent to Ms Sturgeon’s acquiescence. Indyref2 is not even being debated formally on the conference floor – it took place instead on Alex Salmond's RT show. The SNP-supporting former British ambassador, Craig Murray, is furious he was not permitted to hold a fringe meeting arguing the case for an early referendum.

But mainstream Scottish nationalists are nothing if not loyal and the Yes2 troops seem content to be stood down yet again. Perhaps they'll be offered a day of action or another “listening” exercise to keep them happy. This will annoy the media, of course, who thrive on party split stories. But so great is the loathing of the Mainstream Media by SNP members, that they'll avoid criticising their leadership just to spite the BBC.

A few months ago, party unity didn't seem so rock solid, and not just because Alex Salmond was taking the Scottish government to court over his alleged sexual assaults. There’s been a series rolling indyref2 street demonstrations across Scotland in the past six months organised by All Under One Banner - and barely-suppressed dismay that the SNP leader has boycotted them.

A number of influential voices in the party, like the blogger James Kelly, were arguing that the FM was “honour bound” to call an early referendum. She had secured the “triple mandate” – two parliamentary victories and a referendum vote in Holyrood - and had a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum whatever Westminster says. He insisted that the opinion polls were no obstacle, since support for independence has hardly moved since 2014, and that a vigorous campaign could easily win over the extra 5% of voters required to take Yes over the 50% mark.

But even the Mandate tendency seems to have accepted the inevitable: that there will now be no independence vote before Britain leaves the European Union in March next year, and probably not for a long time after that. Yet, Nicola Sturgeon originally argued that it was imperative that Scots have a vote before Britain left the EU to keep open the possibility of Scotland remaining in it. She was right. For the truth is that once Britain is out of the EU the case for independence is going to be much more difficult to make.

For a start, it will raise the prospect of a hard border with England. Thanks to the debate about the Irish land border, and the difficulty of avoiding it, Scots will be highly conscious of the possible dislocation to trade and cross border relations if Scotland leaves Brexit Britain to join the European Union on its own. Moreover, it would be naïve to believe that Brussels would lift a finger to help the independence movement. It didn't in 2014. The EU is intensely reluctant to support “separatist” movements, like the Catalans.

No, there is no obvious way that a referendum is going to happen in Scotland in time to keep us in the EU. Which makes it all the more strange that Nicola Sturgeon is not doing everything possible to prevent the UK leaving it in the first place. She has said that she is “not opposed” to a Peoples Vote on the Europe, but has been singularly reluctant to actually campaign for one. Yet, Labour has moved, partially in favour of a repeat vote – though its leaders remain hopelessly divided over what to put on the ballot paper.

The stock answer to why Sturgeon has resisted a Peoples Vote is that she doesn't want to set a precedent that might apply after a successful Scottish independence vote. If post-indepenence negotiations get tricky with the RUK, she doesn't want a resurgent Better Together campaign demanding a rethink. But that is surely a long way down the road. Anyway, if the negotiations on Scottish independence turned out to be half as chaotic, ill-informed, fractious and uncertain as Brexit, then perhaps there would be a case for a rethink vote on Scottish independence. Surely, a second EU referendum would set the precedent that counts: it makes the case for indyref2 stronger. Certainly, any future Labour government would be hard put to argue that the Scots have no right to a Peoples Vote of their own.

More importantly, a repeat referendum on Europe would necessitate a delay in the implementation of Article 50 next year. Brussels has signalled that if the UK asks for a pause for reflection, it would oblige. The UK parliament is deadlocked, paralysed, frozen in aspic. There is no majority for a hard Brexit, no majority for Chequers, no majority for the Norway/EEA option, no majority for Canada plus. After the Commons vote in January, it might well be, as the Tory peer Lord Finkelstein argued this week in the Times, that whoever is Prime Minister sees no alternative but to hand this decision back to the people who got us into this mess in the first place: the voters.

Nicola Sturgeon has an opportunity to get on the front foot here. A Peoples Vote would give her energetic but increasingly despondent troops something to do. Surely, that’s better than just sitting doing nothing, while Scotland’s future is decided by a handful of Moggite Brextremists in London.