NICOLA Sturgeon has said the case for independence has “never been greater”, as she refused to rule out pushing for a second referendum before the next Holyrood election.

The First Minister said the “utter chaos” of Brexit was making the case for Scotland taking control of its own destiny, and she would set out her thoughts on timing next year.

She also accused Theresa May of “clutching at straws” when she claimed the Tories had “saved the Union” at the recent Tory conference in Manchester.

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A recent poll suggested the pro-Union parties would win a majority in 2021, meaning Ms Sturgeon’s does not have long to cash in her “cast-iron mandate” for a fresh vote.

The Scottish Conservatives accused her of “playing to the SNP gallery” on the opening day of her party’s annual conference in Glasgow.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney got the largest cheer of his conference speech for saying: “We rededicate ourselves to the cause of independence."

Ms Sturgeon set out her original plan for a second referendum in March, saying she wanted one between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, once the terms of Brexit were clear.

However she “reset” that in light of the SNP’s election losses in June, and now says she will tell Holyrood her thinking on the timing of another vote in late 2018.

The timing means it would not be possible to legislate for and hold a referendum before Brexit, even if the UK government was ready to give Holyrood the power to do so.

Theresa May, who has repeatedly refused to countenance a new plebiscite, never even replied to Ms Sturgeon’s formal request for referendum powers six months ago.

Ms Sturgeon has previously said a second referendum is “likely” before 2021, but also admitted recently she didn’t know when or “whether” she would try to hold one.

Speaking to ITV’s Peston on Sunday, the SNP leader appeared more gung-ho.

Asked whether the election result had put hopes of a second referendum “very much on the backburner”, she said Brexit was engulfing the UK in “utter chaos”.

She said: “When we look forward and see the implications of Brexit, you know that slow motion car crash that is developing right now, then actually the case for Scotland being in control of our own destiny, having control over the decisions that shape our lives has arguably never been greater, so that’s a case I will continue to make.”

Asked if she had made a mistake pressing for a referendum too soon, she said: “When I became SNP leader, the SNP had six MPs in the House of Commons. Today we’ve got 35 MPs so I think it’s important to have that sense of perspective.

“There is a sense that because of the uncertainty of Brexit, because so many things feel to be up in the air right now, it is premature to effectively set a date right now, we need to let the dust settle and that’s effectively what I’ve accepted.”

Asked when she would make a judgment on a referendum, she said: “I think we’ll have to have some clarity towards the end of next year…. I think that’s the point to take a fresh look at it and say, do we have that clarity.

“So I’m pretty clear about that. But that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to make the case for Scotland being independent… The case for independence doesn’t rest on Brexit, you don’t have to be against Brexit to support Scottish independence, but what it is is a really stark illustration of what can happen to a country when we don’t take the big decisions over our future ourselves. Instead, we let them be taken elsewhere and we’re being taken down a path now that we didn’t want to go down and is potentially deeply damaging to jobs and living standards and to all sorts of other aspects of our life here.”

Ms Sturgeon said Mrs May had been “rather rude” in not replying to her request for referendum powers under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, and said it “reflects rather badly on her”, but also that it was not as pressing an issue as it had been.

Ms Sturgeon also refused to apologise for the SNP losing a third of its MPs in June.

Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show if she would copy Theresa May and apologise for the electoral reverse, Ms Sturgeon said the BBC “probably needs a bit of a reality check”

She said a weekend opinion poll had put the SNP 17 points clear of its nearest rival.

“When I became SNP leader the SNP had six MPs. We have 35 MPs today. The 2015 election was an exceptional election, an exceptional result in the immediate aftermath of the independence referendum.”

Pressed on whether she had “no apologies, no contrition”, she replied: “I regret every seat that we lost and we reflect very, very carefully on that. Of course, we do. But the SNP is 17 points clear of our nearest rival. Overall the SNP is in a very strong position.”

Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said: “Nicola Sturgeon had a real opportunity today to act as First Minister and rule out a divisive second referendum.

“Instead, she and her fellow ministers have decided to play to the SNP gallery.

“It’s deeply disappointing and it shows clearly that the SNP leadership is now more concerned about appeasing its own party membership than it is about doing what’s right for the country. Nicola Sturgeon is increasingly out of touch and out of ideas.

“She has panicked at opinion polls showing she will lose her majority and any chance of a second referendum at the next election.”