HUMZA Yousaf could still fight the coming general election as a ‘de facto referendum’, his independence minister has indicated, despite deep misgivings among some of his MPs.

Jamie Hepburn confirmed the idea, first floated by Nicola Sturgeon last year as a way around a Westminster block, would be “on the table” at a special SNP meeting next month to decide the party's strategy.

The Independence Convention in Dundee was supposed to have been held in March, but Ms Sturgeon’s resignation delayed it.

Announcing a new date on Friday, SNP depute leader Keith Brown said that under Mr Yousaf the party was “laser focused” on ensuring Scots had the chance to “exercise their democratic rights”.

Mr Sturgeon’s exit was seen as the demise of the ‘de facto’ plan, especially after the candidates to replace her distanced themselves from it.

The idea of claiming half the votes cast plus one as a mandate for independence was seen as wunworkable by many of the SNP’s MPs. 

Critics said the UK Government would simply refuse to acknowledge a win if Yes parties met the threshold, but would cynically declare the ‘referendum’ lost if they fell short.

In his first speech of the leadership race, Mr Yousaf said the SNP must avoid “the quagmire of process” and grow support for independence until it was the “settled will” of Scotland instead.

However with the general election expected in 2024 becoming a highly polarised fight between Labour and the Tories, the SNP is facing a battle for relevance and the loss of MPs.

It is also being criticised from within the Yes movement for slow progress on independence.

Mr Yousaf asked Rishi Sunak to give Holyrood the power to hold Indyref2 in their first face to face meeting, but the Prime Minister immediately refused.

Mr Hepburn, the first dedicated Minister for Independence, was asked to set out his plan on BBC Scotland’s Sunday Show given the Westminster parties are opposed to a new vote.

He said: “The First Minister announced… that we will hold an SNP independence convention on the 24th of June which will provide party members the opportunity to come together to discuss the road ahead, discuss what our platform will be, in advance of the 2024 general election.

“I can certainly say independence will be front and centre, and we will be considering exactly that - how do we lay out a manifesto which will include a commitment to take Scotland forward to independence and we will lay out exactly how we intend to do that as part of that platform.”

At Ms Sturgeon’s instigation, the UK Supreme Court ruled last year on whether Holyrood had the power to hold Indyref2 without Westminster’s consent, and said that it did not.

After the unanimous judgment, the then First Minister said she would fight the next general election as a de facto referendum on the sole question of independence.

Asked if a de facto referendum was still on the table, Mr Hepburn said: “Well, the First Minister has said that so long as it's rightly within the parameters of a legal electoral route, no options should be taken off the table, so that will form part of our discussion.” 

Mr Hepburn also raised questions about marching for the cause after Mr Yousaf snubbed a major Yes movement rally.

He said he had “nothing against” marches, but added: “We're not going to win independence by marching and rallying alone.” 

The All Under One Banner group last week invited Mr Yousaf to speak at its rally in Stirling on June 24, saying that Yes supporters expected the leader of the SNP to take part.

However Mr Yousaf turned it down on Friday and said another “senior member of the SNP team” would attend instead. 

On Saturday, Mr Brown announced the members-only independence convention would also be on June 24, creating a diary clash, and that Mr Yousaf would therefore be in Dundee.

Mr Hepburn said: “I've nothing against going to marches, I’ve nothing against going to rallies. That can be an important part of demonstrating that we're not going anywhere [not abandoning the cause]. 

“But, look, we're not going to win independence by marching and rallying alone. If we're going to make the independence case, then we engage with the public. We go out there and talk about the underlying strengths of the Scottish economy.

Asked if Mr Yousaf should be at the Stirling rally, Mr Hepburn said: “I'll be engaging with the SNP Independence Convention because I think that’s important, that we engage with SNP members, make sure that they have their chance, rightly, as party members, to discuss the platform that we’ll stand on the next general election.”

All Under One Banner said Mr Yousaf’s snub was “contemptuous”.

Ms Sturgeon announced an updated multi-part independence prospectus two years ago, but to date there have been only three instalments, the last one in October 2022.

During the SNP leadership contest, Mr Yousaf said the £1.5million exercise was producing material “that frankly sits on a website and nobody reads”.

Mr Hepburn said the next part was “a matter of weeks” away and defended “roughly” 20 civil servants working on them, saying the SNP had a “democratic mandate”.

Tory MSP Donald Cameron said: “Jamie Hepburn couldn’t have made it more obvious that the SNP have no intention of tackling Scotland’s real priorities.

“They’re having yet another conference, just for their members, on how to break up the UK – something Scots decisively rejected.

"He made it obvious that his post as Minister for Independence is a pointless one, designed to placate his party’s supporters, but funded by ordinary Scots who reject this divisive message.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "This idea of a de facto referendum was a hairbrained scheme when Nicola Sturgeon first proposed it. 

“Now it is just another stale idea from a continuity government that is completely out of touch and out of ideas.

"The next General Election will be about critically important issues, from the cost of living to the climate emergency to the state of the health service. It will be a chance to change our country’s future, not replay the arguments of the past.”