Bosses at the Electoral Commission have offered to help the SNP hold a second independence referendum, despite opposition from the prime minister.
The regulator’s new chairman John Pullinger has said he is open to an “independent discussion” with Scottish officials if they wanted “something to be done that helps them with their democracy”.
His remarks put the commission on a collision course with the Boris Johnson, who has said he will reject any request for an “irresponsible and reckless” second poll.
Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that May’s Holyrood elections gave the SNP a mandate for a second poll, and nationalists have raised the prospect of the first minister seeking a unilateral poll if Westminster rejects her demands.
Ms Sturgeon is expected to hold a vote in Holyrood before issuing a formal request for a referendum, allowing her to say she is carrying out the will of the Scottish Parliament.
Asked whether such a poll could take place if Mr Johnson refused the request, Mr Pullinger told the Sunday Telegraph: “That is what I’ve read.”
He added: “The UK Electoral Commission is also the electoral commission specifically for Scotland and Wales. We have a direct reporting line to Scotland and Wales. And, as of April this year, we are directly funded by Scotland and Wales too.
“If the parliament in Scotland is wanting something to be done that helps them with their democracy, we will have an independent discussion with them about whether it’s appropriate for the commission to support that.”
The comments come despite fresh polls revealing a slip in support for independence.
A Panelbase poll, published by The Sunday Times today, indicates that 48% would back independence, down four points since April.
Professor Sir John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, told the newspaper that this indicated “a cooling of the independence ardour” since the Holyrood elections last month, when the SNP failed to secure a parliamentary majority.
He added: “The SNP needs to embark on a campaign to persuade more Scots of the merits of independence. Otherwise, Ms Sturgeon might find herself stuck with a promise to hold a referendum that she has little hope of winning.”