A FORMER senior civil servant who advised the UK Government on constitutional and devolution issues has said it will have to set out the conditions under which an independence referendum can be held “at some point”.

Philip Rycroft, who worked on both the independence vote in 2014 and Brexit, also said attempts to “browbeat” the Scottish Government will not save the Union.

The comments come after a week in which the Tory leadership candidates signalled a return to a “muscular Unionism” approach during their campaigns.

Boris Johnson adopted this strategy – focusing on curbing devolution and competing with devolved governments – but appeared to roll back after warnings it would backfire.

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However, Rishi Sunak has announced his plans as prime minister would involve relaunching the UK Government’s Union Unit and having more UK ministers involved at Holyrood.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss signalled a confrontational approach to the Scottish Government by branding First Minister Nicola Sturgeon an “attention seeker” and saying the best way to deal with her was to “ignore her”.

Rycroft (below) told the Sunday National: “They are obviously talking first and foremost to the party membership and not to the people in Scotland, or for that matter in Wales or Northern Ireland.

The National: Philip Rycroft

“I think you have to see an awful lot of what they say through that lens. But once they have said these things they are hard to unsay, so it will set the tone for the beginning of the premiership, whoever it is that wins – it looks like Liz Truss at the moment.”

He added: “It is true under the Johnson administration there was a push into the muscular Unionism phase early on.

“Then partly because Michael Gove – who was responsible for the Union in Cabinet – negotiated the changes in the structures of intergovernmental relations, essentially wiser counsel seems to have prevailed.

“The Government hasn’t really pushed the muscular Unionism line for a number of months.

“So it is a fair question: under a new prime minister would we go back to a tougher approach?”

Rycroft said he did not believe that the muscular Unionism approach would help persuade people in Scotland that the Union was working for them.

“Opinion polls suggest in Scotland that most people want the two governments to work together – that means respect between the two governments seeking to find solutions that work for Scotland,” he said.

“An approach that essentially browbeats the Scottish Government is not going to persuade a lot of people that the Union is still working for them. I think it is the wrong approach.”

Both candidates vying to take the keys to Downing Street have rejected the idea of another independence vote.

Sunak pledged to “rule out holding another divisive Scottish independence referendum”, while Truss said “no, no, no” to the idea of another ballot on the issue.

Rycroft, who was the lead civil servant in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2019 advising UK Government ministers on all constitutional and devolution issues and now runs his own consultancy, said either candidate’s stance was unlikely to change if either became prime minister.

He said the chances of the UK Government negotiating a new Section 30 order in keeping with the timetable set out by Sturgeon was “vanishingly small, at least before the next Westminster election”.

BUT he also said: “The line that says there is no way the UK Government can agree to a legal referendum, the Theresa May line of ‘now is not the time’ – it only works for a time.

“The UK Government at some point needs to set out the conditions under which another referendum can be held.

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“Just saying no again seems to go back on the position of previous UK governments, which has accepted – as indeed happened in 2014 – ultimately the people of Scotland are sovereign on this issue.”

The National: Kirsten Oswald MP

SNP MP Kirsten Oswald (above) said: “It’s always the same with the Tories – they’ve never cared about Scotland but their brazen attacks on Scotland’s institutions and elected leader shows their clear intent to play to their party hardliners rather than act in the interests of the country.

“While people are terrified to open their bills as energy tariffs skyrocket, the Tories are driven by their own narrow self-interest rather than delivering real support to put money into people’s pockets and tackle the Tory-made cost of living crisis.

“But a better future is only possible with the full powers of independence.”