Sir Menzies reveals Brown's secret talks on pact to deny SNP power

GORDON Brown held two secret meetings with Sir Menzies Campbell during last year's Scottish election campaign in an attempt to forge a new Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition and keep the SNP out of power, it emerged last night.

The then Chancellor tried to get the agreement of the former Lib Dem leader for an anti-SNP coalition – even though neither politician had the power to make such an agreement.

The secret meetings, held behind the backs of their respective Scottish parties, were disclosed in Sir Menzies' autobiography, which was released to the press last night.

In Menzies Campbell: My Autobiography, Sir Ming describes how he met Mr Brown twice in Edinburgh during last year's election campaign – once on Easter Sunday and once on election day itself, when it was clear that the SNP was ahead in the polls and heading for victory.

On both occasions, Mr Brown asked for a new Labour-Lib Dem coalition as he did not want the SNP to control the Scottish Executive and its 30 billion budget.

Sir Ming told Mr Brown that, although he was also against an SNP-led devolved administration, he could not decide coalition policy, as that was in the hands of the party's Scottish leader, Nicol Stephen.

Jack McConnell, the then Scottish Labour leader, was not invited to the meetings, and Sir Ming gives the impression that Mr Brown was operating without the knowledge or approval of the Scottish Labour leadership.

News that Mr Brown was working behind the scenes to forge an anti-SNP coalition will infuriate Nationalists and embarrass Scottish Labour leaders, particularly as Mr McConnell made it clear after the SNP won last year's election that Alex Salmond would be given the chance to form a government.

Sir Ming writes that Mr Brown first called him at home on Easter Sunday last year to ask for a discreet meeting. He states: "Like me, he was anxious about the possibility of the SNP governing in Scotland, our own backyard. Was there common ground between Labour and the Lib Dems to tackle the SNP together? He made a number of suggestions. I told him I would have to discuss them with Nicol Stephen.

"He then raised possibilities for a new coalition between the Lib Dems and Labour on the assumption that the two parties had enough seats jointly to form a government."

Sir Ming writes that this was difficult for him as such decisions were for Mr Stephen.

As the election campaign drew to a close, Mr Brown was in touch again. Sir Ming writes: "We met at the same discreet place as before. Throughout the campaign, the polls had put the SNP ahead of Labour. Was there scope for an arrangement between our parties?

"What would be the consequences for Scotland and our parties if the SNP used the 30 billion Scottish Executive budget to build support for independence over the next few years?"

Sir Ming also explains how the Scottish Lib Dem leadership team met at his Edinburgh home the night after the SNP's victory to eat pizza and decide what to do. "After two hours, we packed away our pizza boxes and any possibility of a coalition deal with the SNP," he writes in the book, published next week by Hodder & Stoughton.

Sir Ming also reveals that both he and Tavish Scott, the Lib Dems' election campaign manager, were against an SNP-Lib Dem coalition, but a deal with Labour was still a possibility.

Mr Brown contacted Sir Ming the next day. Sir Ming writes that he had to be "circumspect" as he was not supposed to "muscle in" on Scottish party affairs.

By the time Mr Scott went on BBC Scotland's Politics Show the following day, all forms of coalition had been ruled out for the Lib Dems, which is what Mr Scott then announced.

VICTORY FOR SALMOND ON CROSS-BORDER BODY

ALEX Salmond secured a significant victory last night when Gordon Brown gave his formal consent to the creation of a new cross-Border body to resolve differences between the various administrations around the UK.

Mr Salmond has been calling for the recreation of some sort of committee to sort out disputes since he came to office.

Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary, said that he had been asked by the Prime Minister to take charge of the formation of the new Joint Ministerial Committee, which will act as a forum for discussion for all the devolved administrations and the Westminster government.

The Scotsman revealed last week that ministers were close to agreeing the format of the new body. Mr Murphy said last night he would chair the first plenary session of the new JMC, which is expected to involve the First Ministers of the devolved administrations, and that Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, would chair a meeting before the summer.