It has been assumed in Westminster for several months now that the Scots will get an independence referendum, and it will happen in 2014. But mutterings are beginning to emerge that this may not happen at all - and here is why.
After David Cameron signalled he was willing to give way on his preferred date of 2013, the only things left to work out were supposed to be who got to vote and what the question would be.
The first of those points of tension looks close to being settled. Number 10 this morning all but admitted it was willing to let 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum if the SNP insisted on it. When asked if allowing this to happen would set a precedent for general elections, a Downing Street spokesman said:
These are two different things. One is a referendum on the independence of a nation which is an irreversible decision. The other is an election for the government, which can be reversed after five years.
It sounds as if the coalition has accepted the SNP argument on this one – which just leaves the question of the question (as it were). The problem is that this is where the real battle lies.
The government is determined to make sure Scottish voters are asked simply whether or not they want to remain in the UK. The SNP, conscious that it would be likely to lose such a vote, has hinted heavily that it wants a third option – “devo max” – on the table. That would allow full fiscal autonomy without independence of foreign policy or defence. That option, many assume, would be more popular with wavering voters who don’t like being governed from London but are wary of what full independence might bring.
If the two sides are unable to agree, Alex Salmond may well decide to go ahead and call a vote anyway, even without formal legal powers being transferred from Westminster. Whitehall officials have hinted heavily in recent weeks that they would challenge such an attempt in the courts, and they are convinced they would win.
Senior people within the pro-union side think that this may be the most likely outcome, and that Alex Salmond would be then abandon the referendum altogether while blaming Westminster for blocking it. That would give him the possibility of another shot in a few years’ time, when the polls might look a bit better for him.
Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems told me:
If Mr Salmond thinks he is not going to win he will find a way of scuppering the whole thing. He tends to work in the politics of grudge and grievance.