The Conservatives have warned Nicola Sturgeon that if she makes good her threat of a second independence referendum she will lose by an even larger margin.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson told The Telegraph there was “every chance” that the pro-Union side would win by more than the 10-point margin they secured in the 2014 referendum.
In comments that will be seen as a direct challenge to Ms Sturgeon to think again about demanding another vote, Ms Davidson said the arguments for separation are weaker now and the people of Scotland “are just as switched on”.
But she confirmed that Theresa May is ready with her response if Ms Sturgeon ignores her warning and uses this month’s SNP spring conference to demand the power to stage another vote.
Although Ms Davidson refused to disclose the Prime Minister’s answer, she hinted that another referendum should be delayed until after the Brexit deal is agreed by arguing that “people should know what they are voting for”.
Her confident prediction of victory came ahead of Mrs May’s keynote speech to the Scottish Tory conference in Glasgow, in which she will accuse the SNP of having “tunnel vision” on independence and make clear that defending the Union is a “personal priority”.
The Prime Minister will launch an outspoken attack on the SNP’s record after a decade of governing Scotland, saying that the party’s “neglect and mismanagement of Scottish education has been a scandal” and that Scots’ living standards are too important to be treated as a “game”.
But Ms Sturgeon complained that she has been met by a “brick wall of Tory intransigence” on her highly complicated blueprint for Scotland to stay in the EU single market when the UK comes out.
Highlighting the “decisive” Remain vote north of the border, she warned Mrs May that “her Government has no mandate in Scotland, and no democratic basis to take us out of Europe and the single market against our will”.
With no sign of agreement and the triggering of Article 50 only weeks away, the First Minister is expected to make a major announcement on a second referendum at the SNP conference in a fortnight. Bookmakers have made the separatists favourites to win.
Ms Davidson emphasised that she did not think a rerun was “inevitable”, arguing that public opinion on independence had not changed since 2014, when 55 per cent of voters rejected separation, and Ms Sturgeon has no mandate.
But she said: “I would be confident of victory. By the end of the last campaign Yes had already crossed over to be in the lead in the polls and we won by 10 points.
“At the moment they are polling way below what they were doing then. I think the arguments are weaker and I think the people of Scotland are just as switched on as they were three years ago so I think there’s every chance that we would win by a wider margin.”
The oil price collapse has created a £15 billion annual black hole in Scotland’s finances, giving it a higher deficit than even Greece, and experts have warned that joining the EU would create a hard economic border with England.
But the Prime Minister, Ms Davidson and David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, have prepared for the First Minister demanding a Section 30 order – the legal mechanism that would be used to transfer to Holyrood the legal powers to stage a referendum.
Asked if she and Mrs May have “their ducks in a row” on their response if Ms Sturgeon issues this demand at SNP conference, Ms Davidson smiled and said: “Yes.”
She said: “They have locked themselves in a room for nine months to try and work out what their next move is to weaponise Brexit for independence.
“I’m not going to tell you what our response is going to be and what our counter move is to their move because the only people that helps is the SNP and my business is to stand up for people who believe in the democratic decision that Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom and see this for what it is.”
She refused to discuss speculation that the Prime Minister will not allow another referendum during the two years of Brexit negotiations because Scots would not have all the information they needed to weigh up the choice they were making.
But she said the deal agreed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond ahead of the 2014 vote “was to have a fair, transparent and binding referendum and that should be the minimum standard for all referenda”. She added: “People should know what they are voting for.”
Ms Davidson also dismissed as “absolute nonsense” the First Minister’s attempts to blame the Prime Minister for a second referendum, saying that: “Folk aren’t daft – they can see through that.”
In essence, she said Ms Sturgeon was arguing that “Theresa May is going to make me push for the only political goal I’ve only ever had in my entire life since I was 15 years old.” The First Minister ordered her civil servants to draw up legislation for a new vote only hours after the Brexit result.
And Ms Davidson warned Ms Sturgeon that she faces a backlash from the Scottish people if she is seen to be undermining the Prime Minister and “Team UK” by “continuously sniping at the sidelines” after Article 50 is triggered this month.
The Scottish Tory leader also predicted that the Nationalists’ claims this week that her party is plotting to seize powers repatriated from Brussels that should be devolved to Holyrood risked “biting them on the backside”.
She said: “The SNP have to be really careful because they are jumping up and down about powers that ultimately they want to hand back to Brussels as quickly as they can.”
Mrs May will tell the conference that “strengthening and sustaining the bonds that unite us is a personal priority”, arguing she wants to raise the standard of living across the UK.
She will highlight an international study showing that Scottish schools “are now outperformed in every category by schools in England, Northern Ireland, Estonia and Poland”.
“And just this week we have learned that the SNP Government has delayed its planned education Bill, such is their obsession with the single issue of independence,” Mrs May is expected to say.
Angus Robertson, the SNP's Westminster leader, said education spending is rising in Scotland and falling in England. He added: “We will always work to improve our public services – but absurdly ill-informed comments like this do the Prime Minister no favours.”