• Alex Salmond: shifting agenda. Picture: PA
Ministers have missed a key deadline for the Referendum Bill, meaning that it is now almost impossible for the SNP government to hold an independence vote on St Andrew's Day this year as they said they would, and difficult even before next May's election.
In order to meet their timetable, the First Minister had promised that the Bill would be tabled at Holyrood before the summer recess, which begins at the end of the week.
Scotland on Sunday has learned that there is now no chance of that happening.
Opposition parties claim that the slip means the SNP will not be able to bring the bill before parliament within its four-year lifespan. The government say there is still time for them to do so.
It is understood that one of the reasons behind the slip in the timetable is that ministers and civil servants are still deliberating over the precise form of words to be used for the referendum's second question, which aims to allow the electorate to vote for an extension of Holyrood powers short of full independence.
The revelation of the delay comes just days after the First Minister admitted that the "centre of gravity" in Scottish politics was not independence but more financial powers for Holyrood.
With only one third of the population supporting independence, Salmond appears to have moved from what is desirable for the SNP to what is achievable. Delaying the referendum fits into this new approach. Salmond published his first draft independence Referendum Bill in August 2007, fulfilling his promise to do so within his first 100 days in office.
The National Conversation consultation followed, which was supposed to culminate in a white paper on a referendum in November, an actual legislative bill in January this year and the referendum itself on St Andrew's Day 2010.
That timetable was delayed and nothing was published in November last year. Instead, the white paper was published in February – three months late.
Then Salmond promised a swift, nine-week consultation process culminating in a formal bill tabled before parliament in time for the summer recess.
The summer recess begins at the end of this week and the bill still has not been produced. It has also not gone before Cabinet to be signed off, which has to happen before it can be tabled.
A source close to the First Minister admitted that the bill would now not appear before the summer recess. He also admitted that ministers had not agreed on a second question for the referendum. Until that is agreed, the bill cannot be signed off by Cabinet.
"That is a live debate," he said "and while it is still a "live debate, the referendum bill cannot be formalised."
Opposition politicians believe Salmond is putting off the bill for as long as possible because he knows it will be defeated at Holyrood. By spinning it out, the First Minister can turn it into an election issue next year.
SNP ministers insist that there is still time to introduce a bill in the autumn and have the referendum, but none of the opposition parties share that view. They all believe the process will take ten months or more to complete, particularly because they insist that there has to be a gap of about three months after a bill is tabled before the stage one process.
The rest of the process takes many months with another gap between the passing of the legislation and the referendum itself, to inform the public and prepare for the plebiscite.
The process can be compressed in exceptional circumstances but that takes the consent of opposition parties and they will not agree to help.
Mike Rumbles, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, said: "The SNP have left it too late to bring their referendum bill before this current parliament."
David McLetchie, for the Tories, said: "The referendum has now been reduced to a pre-election stunt. This has been delayed again because Alex Salmond knows, following the General Election result, there is obviously no appetite for independence. All there is left is grandstanding."
Labour's Pauline McNeill said: "This was always just a gimmick designed to keep the issue alive. If they were serious about putting the question to the people, they would have published the bill by now and tabled it in parliament. Perhaps they know there is no support for an independence referendum in any form or shape."
But the First Minister's aides insisted that the Referendum Bill would still be brought forward in time.
A spokesman for Salmond said: "We are analysing the responses to the draft Referendum Bill, and will publish a final bill in good time so that a referendum can take place during this Parliament.
He added: "Interestingly, the likelihood is that the referendum in Wales will take place next spring – a process involving a Labour-led administration in Cardiff, and a Tory/Lib Dem government at Westminster – and the ball is in the court of these same parties at Holyrood to support the right of the people of Scotland to have their say on the nation's future."