Brown leaves the future of Union in Wendy's hands
Despite being an implacable unionist for his entire political career and against an independence referendum, Mr Brown said yesterday that he would leave the issue of a vote on separation to Wendy Alexander.
In doing so, he has also effectively ceded responsibility for the constitutional future of Scotland to Holyrood, even though it is a reserved matter for Westminster. The SNP has hailed this as a major breakthrough.
The change in position to support a referendum on independence by Labour and Ms Alexander means there is, for the first time, a majority in the Scottish Parliament in favour of a vote on the future of the Union.
Ms Alexander could even table her own referendum bill, calling for a public vote on independence.
As the leader of the UK party, Mr Brown could have slapped down Ms Alexander – described as "erratic" by her political opponents – and blocked the possibility of a high-risk vote.
But when asked about it, his spokesman said: "The position taken by the Labour Party leader (in Scotland] is a matter for her. Clearly, there is a debate taking place in the Scottish Parliament on the timing of any potential referendum on Scottish independence.
"The Prime Minister has always been comfortable with the strength of the argument in favour of the Union and believes that a referendum questioning the Union would be defeated."
He added that Mr Brown was confident independence would be rejected "whenever a vote happened".
The move has caused astonishment among Labour's political opponents, not least because Mr Brown has made so much of promoting Britishness and, in the event of independence, would see his Westminster seat disappear.
Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: "Mr Brown appears to have washed his hands of this issue, which is astonishing considering he is a Scottish MP and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom."
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: "Can we really be surprised that Gordon Brown is dithering? He doesn't do decisiveness."
At a news conference yesterday, Ms Alexander insisted Mr Brown was backing her by saying it was a matter for Scottish Labour. She rejected suggestions he was washing his hands of her.
She also denied she had been "bounced" into supporting a referendum by Mr Brown, or that he was being "bounced" by her. "We had close discussions over a long period," she insisted.
Ms Alexander said she had come to her decision to back a referendum because the issue had been "hanging around for 30 years", and she demanded the SNP bring its bill forward soon.
"You can't propose the break-up of the United Kingdom, then run scared of the issue for three years," she said. "It's time for them to put up or shut up."
Ms Alexander confirmed that Labour bringing forward its own referendum bill was "an option". A spokesman added that she would like to see a referendum held next year.
The SNP said it was "delighted" with Ms Alexander's U-turn.
A spokesman said: "The proof that Wendy Alexander's U-turn was an unorganised and freelance operation is confirmed by Downing Street's failure to endorse her comments.
"The political gain in this Labour Party fiasco is all for the SNP. The Downing Street statement implicitly concedes a referendum on independence is a matter for the Scottish Parliament to organise – a significant step forward. The Scottish Government welcomes that and welcomes that the entire Scottish constitutional debate is following the SNP's agenda."
Publicly, Labour MSPs supported Ms Alexander's line at a meeting of the parliamentary party yesterday. However, The Scotsman has learned there was some disquiet about the sudden decision to back a referendum.
Duncan McNeil, chairman of the Labour group at Holyrood, said: "No-one had any complaints about the decision, and we are now in a position where, as a group, we will not vote down any referendum bill that comes into the parliament."
He added: "This has actually come as quite a relief for some members."
But George Foulkes, a Labour Lothians MSP, warned: "There is an argument to have a referendum quickly to shoot Salmond's fox, but I think we need to be very careful about this."
Another senior Labour MSP was furious the change of heart had been rushed through without proper consultation. "We should have been arriving at a decision on a referendum after discussion and debate within the party," he said.
A third said nobody had seen the U-turn coming, adding: "This is a hugely high-risk strategy that could play right into Salmond's hands."
Earlier, former Labour first minister Henry McLeish warned Ms Alexander she was playing a dangerous game that could end in independence, or the case for independence being strengthened.
He said: "If the name of the game is to try and shoot the fox by having an early referendum, the danger is it could backfire and we have a result which does not suit the unionist parties but will suit the SNP – because it will be the first recorded, proper vote on independence, which will only make their enthusiasm that much greater."
Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Tory leader, denounced Ms Alexander for betraying Scotland and described the U-turn as a reckless gamble.
She said. "I am a staunch supporter of devolution and refuse to play fast and loose with our future. Wendy Alexander is dancing to Alex Salmond's jig and pandering to the agenda of the SNP."
Miss Goldie also warned a referendum could come down to personalities rather than principle, with the SNP making the campaign "Alex Salmond versus Gordon Brown or Wendy Alexander".
David Cameron, the UK Tory leader, said he was not in favour of a referendum and did not relish the prospect of being prime minister of only England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
WHAT NOW FOR CALMAN COMMISSION ON DEVOLUTION?
WENDY Alexander's call for a referendum on independence has raised questions about the purpose of the Calman commission, the panel of experts asked to map out Scotland's political future.
The commission is not due to report within a year – by which time a referendum could have been held. The biggest irony of all is that the commission has been specifically told not to look at independence as an option.
Its chairman, Sir Kenneth Calman, said it was "business as usual" but other members have questioned its role.
Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, said: "The only thing Wendy Alexander and the SNP seem to agree on now is that there should be a referendum, but not the timescale or what questions it should pose.
"The CBI as an organisation resolved to leave the issue of whether there should be an independence referendum to the Scottish Parliament to decide. That is the right position."
John Loughton, who chairs the Scottish Youth Parliament, said: "I think we have to be very careful that any decisions on the staging of a referendum are taken in the best interests of Scotland. I would urge people to remember that during the ongoing debate."
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP deputy First Minister, said Ms Alexander's comments "blew the gaffe" on the commission being a totally empty exercise.
Ms Sturgeon said: "Wendy has pre-judged the commission as a mere exercise in tinkering.
"Wendy's position is farcical – the commission may as well wind up its business now. Labour are clearly indicating that it will produce nothing substantive."
She added: "The opposition parties are in meltdown on the constitution."
More than half of Labour voters want premier to stand down, claims poll
GORDON Brown is under yet more pressure after a poll revealed a majority of Labour supporters feel the party would be better off if he stood down.
In the latest setback to the Prime Minister, they believe Labour has a better chance of winning the next general election if he makes way for a younger leader.
News of the poll came after Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, said that voters had the "right to expect better" of Labour, while the Tory leader, David Cameron, said he would make Mr Brown's U-turn over 10p tax the central issue of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. It will be held on 22 May following the death of Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody. She had a majority in excess of 7,000, but the Tories believe a victory is possible.
The Populus poll showed that support for Labour had plunged four points to 29 per cent in the past month. The Tories were up to 40 per cent, giving David Cameron the biggest Tory lead in the five years of the Populus series of polls.
The Liberal Democrats were up two points on 19 per cent.
But it is the poll's findings on the party leaders that will alarm No10 more, with Mr Brown's leadership rating on the slide among all voters and running behind those of Mr Cameron and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.
Some 55 per cent of Labour voters say the party would be more likely to beat the Tories at the next election if Mr Brown resigned "to make way for a younger, fresher, more charismatic alternative".
The number of people trusting Mr Brown and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, most to deal with the economic turmoil has slumped from 43 per cent in mid-March to just 30 per cent.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron said: "Our message will focus on the 10p tax rate, and how Gordon Brown is hurting the people of Crewe with tax increases just as their cost of living is going up.
"People in Crewe know that the more of them who vote Conservative, the clearer the message will be to Gordon Brown to do more to help."
He added: "People in Crewe should ask themselves if Labour win, whether Gordon Brown will breathe a sigh of relief and think, 'I've got away with it' and tell (Labour rebel] Frank Field and anybody else to get lost."
Meanwhile, writing in Prospect magazine, Mr Clarke, an arch Blairite, said that "good leadership matters" and suggested a mini-Budget was the best way for the government to reverse its unpopularity.
Mr Brown is known to be drawing together a series of new policies on housing, health, education and the constitution to be unveiled next week.
Mr Clarke called for an end to the "black arts" of Labour spin-doctors briefing against people in their own party, and a ditching of "dog whistle" policies, such as "British jobs for British workers" – a phrase controversially used by Mr Brown.
He also called for the axeing of plans to increase the period terrorist suspects can be held without charge from 28 to 42 days.
Mr Clarke's intervention came as Mr Field held talks with Mr Darling to demand greater clarity on the government's proposed compensation package for those losing out under tax changes.
A Treasury source said Mr Darling had given a "categoric assurance that he is intending to help as many people as possible, that he is looking at all the options and that he wants to get it right".
Mr Field has yet to decide whether to retable a rebel amendment to the Finance Bill, which he withdrew last month.
Salmond likes a flutter – and he could unseat PM
THEY were only three small words – "bring it on" – but they could have enormous repercussions for Gordon Brown and the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom.
When Wendy Alexander, the Scottish Labour leader, issued her referendum challenge to Alex Salmond on Sunday, she performed one of the most significant U-turns in Scottish political history, which could ultimately end with the break-up of the UK.
But with so much at stake, why is the Prime Minister allowing Ms Alexander to continue with brinkmanship that could lead to an outcome he abhors? And why has he apparently put his and Scotland's fate in the hands of a leader whose poll ratings are rock bottom? Indeed, many are even confused as to whether Wendy Alexander even intended to make the announcement.
The question marks over Ms Alexander's ability to lead in Holyrood and the recent donation scandal have shown her hands may not be the safest.
Many believe the policy change looks like a panic measure on the back of appalling local election results in England, and an attempt by Ms Alexander to neuter the SNP before a 2010 general election, and reduce losses to the Nationalists.
But it also gives the impression Mr Brown has lost authority and his acolytes are now trying to fill the vacuum he has left in an effort to fight political opponents north and south of the Border who are circling in for the kill.
It was a hugely disorganised change of direction, with Ms Alexander apparently speaking to almost nobody, least of all her fellow Labour MSPs, before announcing she was backing a referendum.
Unionist colleagues in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat ranks are surprised and bewildered. Ms Alexander has broken faith with them after they agreed the Calman Commission on devolution would be the best way to map out new powers for Scotland.
But, as much as it appears that Scottish Labour and Ms Alexander are making up the new policy on the hoof, this has changed the political landscape of Scotland.
We now have the two biggest parties in Holyrood supporting a referendum on independence. This means a vote on separation will happen unless Labour once again turns full circle – something the events of the last few days shows you cannot rule out.
The gamble is that this will kill off Mr Salmond and the SNP for a generation. But what a gamble.
And if the famous gambler Alex Salmond wins, Mr Brown will find himself without a job by default and the UK will be finished.