LABOUR is ready to open the door for the UK government to take control of the Scottish independence referendum, The Scotsman has learned.
And Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday gave a strong hint that he is running out of patience with Alex Salmond to reveal his plans.
Senior Labour sources said that the party is now prepared to support moves by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition to bring forward a referendum in 2013.
The controversial move comes amid growing concern over the economic impact on Scotland of the SNP’s failure to set a date for the referendum.
A senior UK government source said last month that the coalition was waiting for Labour to give its support to the move to challenge the First Minister’s claim that only the SNP has a mandate to run the poll.
It is understood Tory Scotland Office minister David Mundell, who has recently become chairman of the Scottish Conservatives, has been holding informal talks with Labour MPs and peers discussing the possibility of taking the referendum away from the SNP.
Sources said Labour is now just waiting for a new Scottish leader to be elected next month before confirming its support for the move. But the appointment of Glasgow East MP Margaret Curran as shadow Scottish secretary to take a more aggressive approach along with a large team of shadow ministers to support her, is part of a statement of intent for Labour of making more pro-active attack on the SNP.
One Labour MP said: “What has been agreed behind the scenes is that we should support a referendum being organised in Westminster. We don’t think that it will damage the pro-UK cause and it will allow for a straightforward single question set by a neutral body.”
Another added: “The feeling is that it has to be done here because otherwise Alex Salmond and the SNP will try to rig it.”
A third said: “We are just waiting for the Scottish Labour leadership to be resolved, but David Mundell has been having informal talks with Cameron’s backing and on the whole Labour is in agreement with the approach.”
The pro-UK parties also want an inquiry by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee into the way the referendum should be run and the details of what will be put to Scottish voters.
Pro-UK parties have also been buoyed by a recent poll that showed 28 per cent support for independence, despite cuts from Westminster.
Yesterday, after a meeting with new Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, Mr Cameron challenged Mr Salmond to set a date and time for the referendum. He also made it clear that he believes that the Scotland Bill, which includes reforms that increase income tax powers for Holyrood, make provisions for more powers for the Scottish Parliament.
Mr Cameron said: “I am proud that it is the UK government which is enacting a new Scotland Bill which will transfer significant extra powers to Holyrood and place the responsibility for raising billions of pounds of public spending in the hands of the Scottish Parliament.
“This will meet the demands of the Scottish people for more say over how Scotland is run, and clear the way for a straightforward and clear-cut referendum on ‘yes or no’ to Scotland in Britain. I pledge myself to campaign to keep our United Kingdom, and challenge Alex Salmond to set the date and to agree the question now.”
However, in a sign of growing separation between Scotland and the rest of the UK, Ms Davidson’s made clear she saw Mr Cameron as her equal in terms of party leadership, with the Scottish party now autonomous.
She said: “When he [Cameron] comes north of the Border he’s my colleague and not my boss.”
She also told Mr Cameron that he and senior cabinet ministers needed to visit Scotland more, “not leave the field empty for Alex Salmond”.
A spokesman for Mr Salmond said: “This latest outbreak of sabre rattling is a bad blunder – it plays right into our hands, because every time Westminster threatens to trample over the mandate of the people and government of Scotland to deliver a referendum in the second half of this parliament, support for the SNP and independence gets a big boost.”