Labour implodes over independence vote

A DAY of extraordinary disarray within Labour has left serious questions hanging over the party's leadership on both sides of the Border. Days after Wendy Alexander, the Scottish Labour leader, called for a referendum on independence, Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, directly contradicted her when put on the spot at Westminster yesterday.

His failure to support Ms Alexander left some critics suggesting her position was untenable and saying she should step down immediately.

But last night she refused to quit and insisted that she and the Prime Minister were in agreement.

Labour's implosion began just after midday in the Commons, where MPs had gathered for Prime Minister's Questions. Already facing a rough ride after the party's meltdown in local elections last week, Mr Brown was quizzed by David Cameron, the Tory leader, on Ms Alexander's call for an early referendum on Scottish independence.

But instead of backing her, Mr Brown said the situation should be reviewed when the Calman commission on devolution had reported. And, in an even more surprising sign of a party in chaos, he appeared to deny that she had even called for a referendum.

When the Tory leader asked Mr Brown if he agreed with Ms Alexander that a referendum should be held "now", the Prime Minister replied: "That is not what she has said."

Mr Cameron retorted: "I think you are losing touch with reality."

Mr Brown certainly appeared to reveal a lack of communication between his office and Ms Alexander's. Only a day earlier, when asked if Mr Brown supported her calls for a referendum, the Scottish Labour leader simply said: "Yes."

As news of Mr Brown's comments at PMQs spread, Ms Alexander went to ground.

She and her aides hid from the press for almost three hours while they tried to get their story straight. During this period, there was a desperate phone call to Mr Brown from Ms Alexander.

She issued a statement just after 3pm saying there was no disagreement. But it only added to the confusion, by failing to restate her position of earlier in the week.

Her spin doctor then faced the press pack. He claimed Mr Cameron's use of the word "now" meant the Tory leader was technically wrong over Ms Alexander's position on a referendum. But he went on to confirm that she and the Holyrood Labour group wanted a plebiscite as soon as possible.

However, a source close to Ms Alexander admitted to The Scotsman: "There is a difference between them (Ms Alexander and Mr Brown] on that bit (waiting for the Calman commission], but Wendy intends to stick to her guns."

Matters were made worse when it emerged that Labour could not, as Ms Alexander had said it might do, bring forward a bill to have a referendum and force the SNP's hand. This is because the SNP has already tabled a white paper and indicated that a bill will be brought forward before the election.

Meanwhile, the SNP sat back and rejoiced at the apparent implosion of the Labour Party on this crucial constitutional issue. They joined the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in saying Ms Alexander's position was untenable.

Mr Cameron twisted the knife further by writing to Mr Brown, pointing out that what he and Ms Alexander had said could not both be correct.

The saga follows three of the most remarkable days for post-devolution Scottish politics, which started with Ms Alexander stunning everyone, especially her Labour colleagues at Holyrood, with a U-turn on an independence referendum and saying she wanted one as soon as possible.

Suspicions about Mr Brown's private unhappiness over his close ally's stance were aroused on Tuesday, when he said the issue was a matter for Ms Alexander.

Labour MSPs are refusing to say Ms Alexander should quit as leader, but many were keeping their heads down yesterday. Many who did show their faces were far from happy and some were taking sides between the party's UK and Scottish leaders.

One joked, "I think I'm going to join the Lib Dems", while another said: "I think we are in a parallel universe."

But a third claimed: "I guess he (Gordon Brown] has lost control of the Scottish Labour Party, but I know which one is right, and that's Wendy.

"We've been fighting on public policy for a year and, let's be honest, we failed. We need to get the independence issue out of the way and then attack the SNP on their cuts.

"(Alex] Salmond now has to explain why he is not going to bring a bill for a referendum forward immediately."

Only one Labour MSP, Karen Gillon, has come out against a referendum, but she insists she is "loyal to her leader".

She also opposed a referendum on devolution.

The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy First Minister, was the first to go on the attack. "Wendy Alexander's position is now completely untenable," she said. "At a stroke, Gordon Brown has destroyed her leadership and placed serious questions over his own."

Mr Salmond described Labour's troubles as a "spectator sport" and said the SNP would stick to its pledge of producing a referendum bill in 2010. He added: "I'm not sure if Wendy Alexander is trying to get rid of Gordon Brown, or Gordon Brown is trying to get rid of Wendy Alexander."

Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Tory leader, who has always opposed an independence referendum and has accused Ms Alexander of treachery, also demanded that she go.

Last night, the Scottish Labour leader was left desperately defending her position.

Asked if she intended to quit, she replied: "Not at all."

When asked if her position was untenable, she said: "I have the support of the Prime Minister, the Labour group of MSPs, of many party members and the people of Scotland, who feel they have the right to have a say on this matter."

PM pulls a score bore out of fire as Cameron gives him a chance to make-up lost ground

Ross Lydal

LITTLE did he know it, but Gordon Brown had Boris Johnson to thank for the cheer that greeted his arrival in the Commons chamber yesterday.

Moments earlier, the new mayor of London had been greeted by mass approval on the Tory benches. Labour MPs may be down in the dumps, but they're not ready to be outdone in the pantomime stakes.

It was the Prime Minister's first Question Time since the local election drubbing. And David Cameron, the Tory leader, was only too keen to drive a wedge between Mr Brown and Wendy Alexander, Labour's leader in Scotland.

With a dutiful nod to the Speaker, Mr Cameron launched his six questions by asking about Ms Alexander's "bring it on" call for a referendum.

Did the Prime Minister agree with her view that there "should be a referendum now"?

"That is not what she said," returned the great clunking fist, leaving MPs scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Surely that was exactly what she said?

Oh, no. Mr Brown may have been splitting grey hairs, but he clung to Mr Cameron's use of the word "now" for protection.

Ms Alexander's comments were all about exposing the "hollowness" of the SNP's pledge on independence and lack of haste in holding a referendum, he said, a comment which later led to a point of order from the SNP.

Mr Cameron decided to get personal. "This is the Prime Minister who went on American Idol with more make-up on than Barbara Cartland," he jested.

But how it backfired. He could barely be heard – and had to swallow his own laughter – when Labour MPs fired back at maximum decibels that he was one to talk about make-up.

And so it continued: Cameron firing the jibes about No10 meetings with Shakira and George Clooney – "Why does he not give up the PR and start being a PM?" – and Mr Brown returning with his familiar claim of Tory "slick salesmanship" and boasts about rising employment and fewer children living in poverty.

A score draw descended into a bore draw as Mr Brown droned about 42-day detention. The Prime Minister had managed to escape the heat – and turned the fire back on Ms Alexander.

Diary of the shambles that made Labour a laughing stock

SUNDAY

ON the Politics Show, Wendy Alexander is asked if she will support a referendum. She first says she won't make policy in a television studio, but, when pressed, adds: "Bring it on."

Later in the day, one of the Scottish Labour leader's aides confirms to The Scotsman that she now supports a referendum.

MONDAY

AN aide for Ms Alexander tells The Scotsman that she would like to have a referendum in 12 months on a simple "yes or no" question on independence. He suggests Labour may bring forward its own bill to force the issue.

Ms Alexander goes back on television and radio to confirm the policy change from opposing a referendum to supporting one. The SNP welcomes the U-turn.

TUESDAY

THE Labour group in Holyrood meets and agrees to support Ms Alexander's new policy. Duncan McNeil, the group's spokesman, says that all the MSPs agreed with the new policy, some were relieved and that they would support a referendum whenever it was called. Gordon Brown's spokesman says the issue is "a matter for the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland".

Ms Alexander gives a press conference and asks what the SNP is afraid of in bringing forward a bill for a referendum now. She says a referendum should happen as soon as possible.

An aide to Ms Alexander later adds that, ideally, a referendum would take place in 2009.

Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservatives' leader, accuses Ms Alexander of betraying Scotland. The SNP insists it will stick to its manifesto promise of bringing forward a referendum bill in 2010.

YESTERDAY

AT Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs), Gordon Brown says that there should be a review of the situation after the Calman commission on devolution reports, contradicting Ms Alexander's statement on Tuesday.

Labour promises a statement, but neither Ms Alexander nor her main press officer comes out to talk to the press. The statement is issued after almost three hours but fails to reconfirm Ms Alexander's position of the previous few days. Aides say she has not changed her mind.

Ms Alexander speaks to Mr Brown after PMQs and her aide says the two agree, but a source admits that there is a split. Opponents say Ms Alexander's position is now untenable.

Alexander's statement in full yesterday

The Prime Minister and I are agreed about exposing the hollowness of the SNP's position, claiming they favour independence, yet wanting to hold a referendum in only 2010 or 2011.

David Cameron is wrong. His question showed his continuing lack of understanding of the process. The Prime Minister was right to say no-one was proposing a referendum at Westminster. The procedures of the Scottish Parliament mean that even if the SNP or anyone else introduced a Bill at Holyrood it could take up to 12 months to be considered.

As the Prime Minister said, the Calman commission has been set up to review devolution and we will continue to review its progress.

COMMENTS ON A CRISIS

"I think I'm going to join the Lib Dems."

– Joke by Labour MSP

"I guess he (Gordon Brown] has lost control of the Scottish Labour Party." – Labour MSP

"There is a difference between them on that bit, but Wendy intends to stick to her guns."

– A source close to Wendy Alexander commenting on her wanting a referendum as soon as possible and Mr Brown saying there should be a review when the Calman commission reports.

"At a stroke, Gordon Brown has destroyed her (Wendy Alexander's] leadership – and placed serious questions over his own."

– Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

"Anyone who listened to Wendy Alexander's remarks could be in no doubt that she meant a referendum should be held – and it shouldn't be delayed. To pretend otherwise is once again treating people like fools."

– David Cameron, the Conservative leader, in a letter to Gordon Brown

"You do not understand this important issue relating to Scotland and the Union."

– Gordon Brown, in reply to Mr Cameron's letter

So what now? The seven paths party can choose

DAVID MADDOX

SCOTTISH POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT

What can Labour now do to heal the rift? Several options are possible.

• Gordon Brown orders Wendy Alexander to resign. Technically, he does not have the power to sack her, but Mr Brown, as the man who made her, could probably finish her. This is unlikely, given that she is a friend and key ally. It would also allow the SNP to portray Mr Brown as the man who thwarted democracy.

• Ms Alexander quits. Again unlikely since she has shown no sign of being willing to relinquish her job in the wake of donation scandals and ineptitude in parliament. She and her aides are spinning that there is no disagreement.

• Labour MSPs tell Wendy to go. There are some who would like her job, but there are question marks over whether Labour MSPs have the backbone to wield the knife. Also, the referendum policy is no longer just Ms Alexander's but is that of the whole Labour group.

• Mr Brown quits. He has waited his whole life to be prime minister and will not give up without a fight. He may go only if a stalking-horse leadership candidate inflicts damage on his authority in the party.

• Carry on regardless. Despite Ms Alexander's position appearing to be untenable and Mr Brown's very shaky, this is still the most likely option, possibly leading to electoral disaster for Labour in 2010 and 2011.

• Ms Alexander's position moves full circle. This would involve her coming out against a referendum and would destroy any lasting credibility she has left.

• Mr Brown does a U-turn – This may yet happen, where he or his spin doctors come out and say that he was misunderstood and that he had backed Wendy all the time on a referendum question. However, he has historically shown little willingness to compromise in this way.