Gordon Brown: Losing his grip on Scotland
THE rift between Gordon Brown and the Scottish Labour Party deepened last night, as Wendy Alexander openly defied his orders by pushing ahead with her plans for an independence vote.
The Prime Minister has long regarded Scotland as his personal power base, but he appeared to be losing his grip on Scottish Labour as Ms Alexander ploughed on with calls for the SNP to bring forward its referendum bill to next week.
Her move means Mr Brown no longer seems to have control over what happens north of the Border, leading Tory leader David Cameron to say: "He's lost his authority."
Despite Mr Brown rejecting her call for a referendum on Wednesday, Ms Alexander, who has the full backing of her MSPs, used First Minister's Questions to demand that the SNP government in Scotland brought forward its referendum bill next week.
It further humiliated Mr Brown, who was trounced last week in the council elections in England and Wales. And his loss of authority has filtered from Holyrood to Labour's back-benches at Westminster. Andrew Mackinlay, a senior Labour MP, asked whether the government was prepared to consider bringing forward a referendum bill for the whole UK.
"The shots are being called from Edinburgh by the SNP and Wendy Alexander. At the very least, the Brown government should be bringing the debate to the Commons," he said.
Another Labour MP described the situation as "visceral", adding that David Cairns, the Scotland Office minister, had been going round the Commons with his head in his hands.
It caps an extraordinary week in Scottish politics, which started on Sunday when Ms Alexander suddenly announced her support for a referendum.
Hours after her exchanges with Alex Salmond, the First Minister, yesterday, the Prime Minister dug in his heels.
Asked whether Mr Brown agreed with Ms Alexander's latest comments, his spokesman said: "The Prime Minister's position was set out very clearly in the House of Commons on Wednesday."
He went on: "For there to be a legally binding referendum, it would require legislation in the UK parliament."
Asked if the Prime Minister had confidence in Ms Alexander, the spokesman said: "That is not a question for me."
Earlier in the week, Labour spin doctors seized on Mr Cameron's use of the word "now" when he spoke of Ms Alexander's desired timing for a referendum. They claimed that was the reason Mr Brown appeared to deny at Prime Minister's Questions that the Scottish Labour leader wanted a quick referendum.
But after Ms Alexander again urged the SNP yesterday to bring forward a bill next week, Mr Cameron led a long line of political opponents openly taunting Mr Brown about losing control of his party in his homeland.
"In light of this open challenge to your authority, perhaps you could make it clear who now speaks for the Labour Party on the issue of a referendum?" he asked in a letter to Mr Brown.
The Scottish Tories said: "Wendy's worked out Gordon is a loser and has declared UDI (a unilateral declaration of independence]." A source close to Mr Salmond said: "Some of our MSPs are asking if Ms Alexander is a secret nationalist. Scottish Labour now appears to have joined the independence coalition."
However, Ms Alexander's supporters denied she was defying Mr Brown. George Foulkes, MSP, said: "There is no split apart from in the minds of journalists."
Fellow Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm insisted her call for an early referendum was right, and that her position was safe.
"It's absolutely safe because she has widespread support, not only within the Labour Party but I believe throughout Scotland," he said.
The issue dominated First Minister's Questions yesterday. During the exchanges, Ms Alexander insisted: "I'm not the problem."
She asked why Mr Salmond would not bring forward a referendum bill next week when he announces his government's programme for the year ahead.
She said: "The uncertainty is damaging our country, and uncertainty costs jobs."
Mr Salmond welcomed what he called the "progress" made by the Scottish Labour leader, but said the SNP would put forward a referendum bill "as stated in our manifesto in 2010". He added that his party would "expect the support of every Labour member in this parliament".
Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Tory leader, raised the prospect of a referendum being decided by the unpopularity of Mr Brown and Ms Alexander. "Who would have thought that a Labour Prime Minister and a Scottish Labour leader would be the SNP's greatest ally in breaking up Britain," she said.
Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, asked if Mr Salmond could believe his luck. "With Labour and Tories like this, does he think life can get any better?" he asked.
The farce was also played out in the Commons, when Ms Alexander's brother, Douglas, the International Development Secretary, had to apologise to the House after he turned up five minutes late for a debate.
The Tory MP Dr Julian Lewis asked: "Could it be that he has been detained advising his sister on the mess that she has got the government into?"
Earlier, Helen Goodman, the Deputy Leader of the House, brought hoots of laughter when she claimed the Prime Minister and Ms Alexander agreed on their position.
The SNP's Stewart Hosie asked for a debate "so that we can tease out the 57 varieties of opinion on the government benches with regard to referendums".
GOING HER OWN WAY
GORDON Brown must be wondering how, in just five days, one of his closest allies could have destroyed his authority in Scotland, writes David Maddox.
It is all the more amazing that the person to blame, Wendy Alexander, was until recently mocked for being placed in office by Mr Brown, who, critics claim, had ensured she would have no challenger.
But a close analysis of how Mr Brown lost Scottish Labour shows there was little he could do about it.
Ms Alexander made a unilateral decision to declare her backing for a referendum and was backed by her MSPs.
The move was no doubt fuelled by Labour's failure in Holyrood to nail the Nationalists.
The change of direction in Holyrood left Mr Brown with two choices. Either support her or cut her loose. A tough decision for a man described as a ditherer. But on Wednesday, he clearly failed to back her.
So the crunch came yesterday. After Mr Brown had rejected her position, would Ms Alexander retreat? The answer was a definite no. Instead, Ms Alexander ploughed on, demanding a referendum bill next week. At that point it was clear Ms Alexander no longer takes her orders from No10 and has forged a political strategy all her own.
THE NEXT MOVES
THE conversion of Scottish Labour means Scotland is almost certain to get a referendum on independence.
Labour MSPs want a referendum held within a year. The SNP want it in 2010, when Alex Salmond hopes his government will have proven itself in office. He also expects to have either a hung parliament or a Tory government in Westminster, which will exacerbate the divide.
Scottish Parliament rules prevent Labour from bringing its own bill forward to force the SNP's hand, although they could put down a motion calling on the SNP government to bring forward a bill immediately.
There is an outside chance that Labour in Westminster introduces a referendum bill there.
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