PRIME Minister David Cameron will not negotiate with Alex Salmond over the independence referendum, insisting the SNP leader must instead deal with Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, Downing Street has said.
The Conservative leader is in Scotland this week and is expected to meet his SNP counterpart for talks – but only as a “matter of courtesy”.
Coalition insiders have made it clear that key areas of contention surrounding the historic vote must be ironed out instead with Mr Moore.
Mr Salmond will hold crunch talks with the Liberal Democrat minister at St Andrews House today. But Nationalists have been keen portray the meeting as a “pathway” to talks with Mr Cameron, who they insist is directing UK government policy on the referendum.
Scotland Office minister David Mundell was reluctant to confirm Mr Cameron’s visit this week during an interview yesterday. But he said: “If he [Mr Cameron] is in Scotland, then obviously as a matter of courtesy he will be speaking with the First Minister.
“But the discussions in relation to the referendum will essentially be conducted by the Scotland Office with the Scottish Government.” Mr Mundell insisted this would be the start of a “positive process”, which would see the “detail of the referendum” sorted out.
The referendum may be raised during the talks between Mr Cameron and the First Minister. But a UK government source last night said the “lead meeting, the important meeting” would be with Mr Moore today.
“He [Mr Cameron] is happy to meet Alex Salmond and will meet Alex Salmond – there’s never been any question of that – but it’s appropriate that he meets with Michael Moore.”
Mr Salmond had last month insisted he wanted to meet with the Prime Minister for talks about the referendum. Downing Street had said the First Minister would first need to speak to the Scottish Secretary before any further talks could take place.
But the latest message from Downing Street is that all negotiations will need to be between Mr Salmond and Mr Moore, rather than with more senior members of the inner circle at Downing Street.
SNP government strategy secretary Bruce Crawford, expected to be at today’s meeting, last month played down Mr Moore’s importance in the process.
“He [Mr Moore] is not a member of the Westminster ‘Quad’ of David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, who are leading Westminster’s policy in relation to Scotland’s referendum,” Mr Crawford said.
“Therefore it is clearly necessary that we also meet with the Prime Minister, who is deciding Downing Street’s policy.”
The key issues under discussion today will be SNP calls for 16- and 17-year-olds to be allowed to vote in the referendum. The SNP also wants to keep the possibility of a third option of more powers for Scotland on the table, pending the outcome of a consultation, but the coalition insists it must be a straight “Yes or No” on independence.
Mr Salmond has said his favoured option is to ask voters: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
The SNP plans to stage the vote in autumn 2014 are also in dispute, with coalition ministers keen a on a date far sooner.
A further stumbling block is the legality of the vote, with the coalition insisting Holyrood does not have the legal authority to stage it. Advocate General Lord Wallace has insisted any referendum held under the auspices of the Scottish Parliament would be open to legal challenge, although Mr Salmond says he has the power to hold an “advisory” poll, which would carry sufficient moral clout.
The UK government proposes to temporarily extend the Scottish Parliament’s powers, using a Section 30 order, to allow it to conduct the referendum, but would want agreement reached on the other areas of contention before agreeing to this.
The SNP has already agreed to allow the Electoral Commission to oversee the poll, amid concerns over an earlier proposal to set up its own commission.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday there was now a “broad consensus” about the timing of the referendum. She said she “looked forward” to hearing Westminster’s views on the questions asked, and whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote.
She added: “There’s no doubt at all that the sooner we can get beyond the issues of process and into, as I think most people in Scotland already are, the issue of substance – why Scotland would be better off as an independent country with a relationship between equals with other countries in these islands – the better.”
A spokesman for Mr Salmond added: “The key point is that the terms of the referendum must be decided in Scotland. The consultation which the Scottish Government has published provides for this democratic imperative – and the Electoral Reform Society Scotland agree that any ‘legal mandate’ must have ‘no strings attached’, so that Scottish Parliament can ‘call a referendum at a time, and with a question [or questions] of their choosing’.”
Both the Scottish Government and the UK coalition have launched their own consultations on the referendum.
Mr Mundell said “great progress” had been made in the past weeks. “Now we need to get the detail sorted out,” he added.
He declined to identify any “lines in the sand” on which the coalition would not budge.
But he added: “We’ve always said that we want a referendum to be legal, fair and decisive, and I think there’s an acceptance now that to be legal it must involve the UK government.
“I think it’s wrong to suggest that individual issues are deal-breakers. It is clear that everyone, it would appear, apart from the First Minister, wants a single question – that’s the position of the coalition parties and the Labour Party.
“The simple question for the people of Scotland should be, do they want to remain part of Britain or not?
“Then we can move on to discuss the future of the devolved arrangement if people opt to stay within Britain.”
He said the Scotland Bill going through Holyrood would give the “most significant financial powers since the Act of Union”.
Mr Mundell said any calls for devo-max had to be a “defined package” of powers.
“At the moment, devo-max is undefined – what groups like Reform Scotland think devo-max is and the Scottish Trades Union Congress think it is are completely different things.”