IN public, we're told, Nicola Sturgeon is “reflecting carefully” on the election and what losing 21 MPs portends for independence. Meanwhile in private, she is reportedly beavering away to “rebrand” a second referendum to make it about the outcome of the Brexit talks. After she criticises media “nonsense”, her new Westminster leader says there might not even be a referendum if there is a soft Brexit.

Something's afoot, but what? Panic? Perhaps. The SNP knew it was heading for losses, but not a third of its seats to three different parties. But the SNP also doesn’t hang about. Perhaps to its long-term cost, it always chooses motion over reflection. Its nature is to look to the next fight. If the plan is to foreground Brexit and downplay independence, there is some interesting material it might use.

Ms Sturgeon’s Bute House speech of March 13, in which she first set out her plan, now feels very dated. For one thing, it was based on a strong and immovable Theresa May. Ms Sturgeon said her efforts to find a Brexit compromise keeping Scotland in the EU single market were met by a “brick wall of intransigence” at Number 10.

“Let me stress, even at this late stage, I am not turning my back on further discussions should the UK Government change its mind,” she said. “But I cannot pretend that a compromise agreement looks remotely likely, given the hardline response from the Prime Minister.”

It feels very different now, with talk of compromise and “open Brexit” in the air, especially as the DUP favours the latter. So it seems Ms Sturgeon may have a way out. She can mollify voters for a while by talking about Brexit’s infinite permutations instead of independence while keeping a referendum in reserve. Result! Except that wasn’t all she said in Bute House.

Although she anticipated a hard Brexit, Ms Sturgeon was clear Scots must have their say on it regardless of the flavour. The referendum was not contingent on hard, soft or open. Remember her mandate stemmed from “Scotland being taken out the EU against our will”. Not taken out the single market, taken out the EU.

She also pushed the democratic argument for a vote. “When the change... made inevitable by Brexit becomes clear, it should not be imposed upon us,” she told MSPs on March 28. “The people of Scotland should have the right to choose between Brexit - possibly a very hard Brexit - or becoming an independent country.” By her own logic, a vote is coming.

But what is trickiest for Ms Sturgeon, if she is hoping for a low-profile route to independence, is that she must crank up the visible machinery of a referendum, such as legislation and a new White Paper, well in advance of any vote. Indeed, a key argument in her Bute House speech was that action was needed now to be ready for autumn 2018 or spring 2019. She was setting out a “clear plan for the way ahead” before it was “too late to choose a different path”. Doing nothing “would mean letting Scotland drift through the next two years, fingers crossed”.

Central to that machinery are the draft referendum bill and Growth Commission Ms Sturgeon announced last September. They are vital pieces of the jigsaw. Without them there can be no referendum. They cannot keep idling. But once they emerge, the Unionist parties will pounce, and the constitutional debate will reignite.

In which case, Ms Sturgeon may as well just get on with it and take the flak. You can’t give the elephant in the room a paint job and pretend it's gone. Some things are too big to camouflage, and it’s an insult to try. You can rebrand a chocolate bar, but not a referendum. If Ms Sturgeon wants one, she’ll have to advance it in plain sight and be straight with voters. Whether they'll thank her, however, is another matter.