MICHAEL Moore's position as Scottish Secretary is under scrutiny as senior Conservatives questioned his judgment after he suggested there should be two independence referendums.
Conservatives claimed that the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland was "out of his depth" and accused him of "foolishness of the highest order" after he argued that two votes would be required to split the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Downing Street yesterday refrained from backing Mr Moore's suggestion of a need for a second referendum in a further indication that his position had strained relations in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.
The Tory backlash came the day after Mr Moore suggested that the first of two referendums would be held on the principle of Scottish independence.
Assuming the Scottish people voted in favour of independence in the first poll, Mr Moore said that a second referendum would then have to be held to ratify an independence deal brokered between the UK and Scottish Governments.
The second vote would be held after the two governments had worked out details such as what proportion of national debt should be taken by an independent Scotland, what share of North Sea oil revenue it would receive and how the Armed Forces would be divided between the two countries.
The independence referendum debate
• Tory: Michael Moore should engage his brain before talking
• John McTernan: SNP stance confounds coalition
• Allan Massie: Complacency on either side of the fence unjustified
• James Mitchell: Delaying tactic that could easily backfire on the UK government
But Mr Moore's decision to flag up the prospect of two independence referendums was attacked by Conservatives, who believe that such an approach will add to confusion and will discourage voters from voting "no" to independence in the first vote - thus handing even more political momentum to the SNP.
The Tories' argument is that voters would be inclined to vote "yes" for independence in the first vote on the basis that the second referendum creates a safety net in which they can always vote "no" if they disagree with the deal that is brokered.
Critics of Mr Moore fear a similar scenario to that experienced last month when Unionists voted for the SNP in the knowledge that they can reject Alex Salmond's independence policy in a referendum.
Yesterday, one Tory MSP told The Scotsman: "In terms of two referendums - if that happens, what's the argument against voting 'yes' in the first referendum?
"All it is doing is provoking future discussion on the potential terms of a new settlement. To call for a second referendum is a policy that is completely inept and someone in his position should know better.
"My understanding is that he didn't discuss this with anybody in advance of his pronouncement and he was shooting from the hip. Someone in his position should exercise greater self-discipline and there is serious disquiet amongst Conservatives about whether he has the credibility to remain in his job.I'm not sure he's up to it.
"Michael Moore gives the impression of someone blundering around trying to find things to say to make a headline when he is well out of his depth on these sensitive issues. In the future he should engage his brain before opening his mouth."
A second Tory MSP described Mr Moore's proposal as "foolishness of the highest order".
Alex Johnstone, the North East Tory MSP, also argued that two referendums would mean that people were more likely to vote for independence in the first ballot.
He said: "The only justification for a referendum is to provide a decisive decision. Anything else is indecision and Scotland will vote 'yes'. It is as simple as that."
There was also unease at Westminster, where one Conservative back-bencher complained that holding two votes was "unfair" and another asked: "What is Moore playing at? Two referendums just improves the Nats' chances of winning."
At the lobby briefing, the Downing Street press spokesman was asked three times if the two referendums idea was government policy or whether Mr Cameron backed it. He refused to back Mr Moore. He said: "Any questions on this are hypothetical and for the future."
The Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "The issue of whether there is one referendum or two referendums is one for down the road. There is a bigger question.
"It is for people who believe passionately in the Union, as I do, to make the positive case for it. Not just about the dangers of separatism, which are very great dangers, but also the positive economic, cultural and social benefits we get from the Union.
"I'm convinced we can win the first referendum and there won't be a need for a second. That's what all the people who believe in the Union must fight for."
Mr Moore revealed his preference for two referendums at a briefing earlier this week. He said the SNP administration had the power only to stage an "advisory" vote on independence. The second referendum would be required because the UK constitution is reserved to Westminster.
The SNP's spectacular win in the Holyrood election means that some form of referendum is inevitable during this parliamentary term.
Alex Salmond's government has yet to pick a date for the poll, although it is expected to be in 2015 or 2016. Last night, a source close to the Scottish Secretary said: "What Michael Moore was doing was mapping out a constitutional position that exists. Any uncertainty about this issue could be cleared up by the SNP coming forward and spelling out what they are planning.
"One assumes that they have thought all this through. Only when they outline what they are proposing can people respond politically and constitutionally."