11 May 2008
By Eddie Barnes, Political Editor
WENDY Alexander was ridiculed by her political opponents
last night after she was ordered by Gordon Brown to
"close down" any further discussion of an independence
referendum in Scotland.
In emergency talks on Friday following the Scottish
leader's astonishing call for a referendum, the Prime
Minister told Alexander the issue should be ditched.
Scotland on Sunday can reveal the Prime Minister told
Alexander twice in the past few days that he did not
support her proposal to force an referendum on Scotland,
to "call the SNP's bluff".
But Alexander chose to ignore her mentor and pressed
ahead anyway, even claiming publicly she had his support.
The affair has left a deep scar in relations between
the two former allies, who spent more than 24 hours
over Friday and Saturday trying to piece together a
fresh statement declaring they were now in agreement.
This was supposed to draw a line under the matter,
but Alexander faced further mockery by political opponents
last night after conceding in the statement that her
hopes of forcing a snap referendum in the next year
were now dead in the water.
The SNP says it will hold the referendum in the autumn
of 2010. Meanwhile, Alexander's other option – to get
Brown to rush through a referendum bill at Westminster
– has been closed off after the Prime Minister told
her he would not countenance such a plan.
And in a further setback for Alexander, the former
First Minister Henry McLeish said the affair had shown
"contempt" for the Scottish people, and he accused her
of leading Labour "into the worst of all possible worlds".
Labour MSPs also privately warned they may rebel against
Alexander by voting against a referendum bill. But Labour
donor Willie Haughey said he backed Alexander on the
issue, declaring it was time to give Scots a vote.
The extraordinary chaos facing Labour began on Sunday
when Alexander told Alex Salmond on BBC to "bring it
on", arguing she was not afraid of a referendum. Aides
then revealed that she backed an immediate referendum
on independence. Alexander said on Tuesday that she
was even considering introducing a bill of her own.
However, the plan fell into farce after Brown failed
to back the plan for a referendum on Wednesday. Then,
on Thursday, Alexander hit back, declaring that she
still wanted it to go ahead.
Scotland on Sunday understands that two days before
Alexander went public with her U-turn, Brown told her
that he could not support a plan for a referendum on
independence. Nevertheless, Alexander went ahead.
Then, in a phone conversation on Tuesday night, after
Alexander's U-turn had been made public, senior Whitehall
sources insisted that the Prime Minister had again repeated
his refusal to back his protege. Despite that, Alexander
then publicly insisted that Brown was in favour of the
A Whitehall source said: "Gordon told her on the Friday
before she went public that he wasn't going to back
it at Westminster. "
Then, on the Tuesday, he quite clearly told her that
'You must not say that I am backing this course of action'."
However, hours later, on Newsnight Scotland, Alexander
insisted that Brown did indeed back the plan. Last night,
Alexander's spokesman said: "Wendy had extensive discussions
with senior colleagues down south and they hadn't made
clear to her that she was going in the wrong direction."
On Friday, Alexander cancelled public speaking engagements
after Brown insisted that they come up with a strategy
to draw a line under the affair.
Yesterday, after more than 24 hours discussion, they
issued parallel statements.
Alexander declared: "The case for a referendum to demonstrate
support for the Union has been increasingly discussed
in Labour circles. The Scottish Labour Group at Holyrood
united around calling the SNP's bluff this week."
She went on: "However, as a minority party in the Scottish
Parliament, Scottish Labour alone cannot force the SNP
to act. The SNP have now made clear they will block
any referendum bill Labour might have introduced . .
. the SNP have therefore now blocked this route in the
She added: "The SNP can never again claim that a 'unionist
cabal' is denying Scotland a voice. The SNP party colour
is yellow and we now know why."
An aide to Gordon Brown said: "Wendy Alexander is a
first-rate leader of the Labour party in the Scottish
Parliament. Together with her, and her team, Gordon
Brown will continue to defend the UK and Scotland's
place in it."
Henry McLeish last night savaged the handling of the
affair. "This is the worst of all possible worlds. We
have marginalised the Calman Commission (the body studying
more powers for the Scottish Parliament), confused the
Scottish public, taken the Liberals and the Tories out
of the equation and seemed more enthusiastic than the
SNP to have a referendum."
He added: "Labour supporters and activists will find
it difficult to work out what on earth is going on.
It's hard to understand how Labour could get itself
into this position. What about the public? They have
been treated with contempt."
And there were signs last night that some of Alexander's
MSPs were beginning to rebel. One said: "Labour voters
deserve better than this. Those who kept with us through
recent difficulties don't deserve this. Wendy needs
to examine herself to see what contribution she is making."
Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie hit out:
"This must go down as one of the most extraordinary,
humiliating press statements ever issued. Wendy Alexander
tries to defend her indefensible actions … by re-writing
history, stretching credibility and taking the public
SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon MSP said: "Words
like 'laughing stock' do not even begin to reach the
extent of the Labour party's disarray and humiliation.
Do they seriously believe that everyone will now believe
it was all a cunning plan? Labour in Scotland are now
just ridiculous and plummeting to new depths of absurdity
as well as in the polls."
Nicol Stephen, of the Liberal Democrats, said: "There
are fundamental question marks over the honesty of what
the Labour Party is saying."