Labour’s election campaign in Scotland risked being derailed on day one after the party confirmed Jeremy Corbyn could allow a second Scottish independence referendum as early as 2021.
A spokesman for Mr Corbyn insisted there would be “no pacts, no coalitions” with the SNP after the Conservatives accused the parties of having struck a “shady backroom deal”.
But Labour was accused of “flirting with the SNP” after one of its senior MPs said Mr Corbyn “won’t stand in the way” of a vote on Scotland’s future.
It threatens to distract from a campaign launch today which will see Mr Corbyn single out wealthy individuals as examples of the “rigged system” Labour pledges to dismantle – including Grangemouth refinery owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe and the Duke of Westminster, who owns nearly 100,000 acres of land in Scotland.
A second independence referendum was the subject of a damaging row between the UK and Scottish Labour parties earlier this year, with an uneasy compromise struck following a commitment from Mr Corbyn not to allow a second independence referendum in the “formative years” of a Labour administration.
But at the final Prime Minister’s Questions before Parliament is dissolved for a snap election, Boris Johnson repeated his claim that a Labour victory would mean two referendums next year – on EU membership and Scottish independence.
Nicola Sturgeon has called for a referendum to take place next year. Yesterday the SNP’s deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman said her party “won’t be going into coalition with anyone, but if anyone wants to work with us, they need to pick up the phone and talk to us about that Section 30 order.”
Asked how long it would be before Labour would consider granting the powers under the Scotland Act, a spokesman for Mr Corbyn only ruled out a referendum in 2020.
“In the course of time, in the later period of a Labour government, if there was a legitimate democratic request from the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, it would be wrong to block it,” they said.
“You can be quite certain that this would not happen next year, contrary to the claims by the Prime Minister,” the spokesman added.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard insisted yesterday: “There is no prospect with the election of a Labour government of their being a second independence referendum.”
Challenged in the Commons over the economic cost of Brexit by SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, the Prime Minister responded that “the greatest damage that could be done to the Scottish economy” was the “crackpot plan for borders at Berwick”.
Mr Johnson later added that Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was to “distract or to dead-cat… from the lamentable failures of the SNP Government”.
A Conservative Party spokesman briefed journalists afterwards that Mr Corbyn had “done a shady backroom deal with Nicola Sturgeon for a referendum in Scotland… he does back a Scottish independence referendum as well as a second referendum on the EU - that’s not how we want to spend 2020.”
But Mr Corbyn’s spokesman hit back, telling reporters: “One thing we’ve all learned is that you can’t trust anything that Boris Johnson says.
“There is no such agreement, there is no commitment to such a referendum. Labour doesn’t support there being another Scottish referendum, and we’ve set out a very clear position that we would not agree to such a thing in the formative years of a Labour government.
“So we can put that claim down to fantasy and fake news.”
The Labour leader’s spokesman went on: “The key point is that the claim being made repeatedly by Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party about two referendums if there’s Labour government next year is invented and completely untrue.”
Asked how the Labour Party’s stance would help candidates in Scotland, the spokesman said: “it’s a principled position, it’s a clear position”.
Earlier, Labour shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald told the BBC: “We won’t stand in the way of a second independence referendum.”
Mr McDonald added: “We are not ruling it out. My dad is Scots, I want Scotland to stay as part of the UK.”
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack accused Mr Corbyn “bowing to [SNP] attempts to break up Britain in exchange for their support.’’
“Two further referendums on Brexit and Scottish independence will do nothing to bring Britain back together,” Mr Jack said.
SNP MP Pete Wishart said: “This election is only on day one, and the SNP’s argument for Scotland’s right to choose its own future is winning.
“This issue will be at the very heart of this campaign, and another win for the SNP will mean no Westminster government – of any party – will have a shred of democratic legitimacy in trying to stand in the way of the will of the people of Scotland.
“Only a vote for the SNP is a vote to stop Brexit and protect Scotland’s right to choose its own future as an independent country.”