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Where's your referendum now?

Brian Taylor | 12:37 UK time, Wednesday, 7 May 2008

So where's your referendum now? At Prime Minister's Questions, Gordon Brown offered an entirely different interpretation of the scenario offered by Wendy Alexander.

According to Mr Brown, Ms Alexander had not demanded an immediate referendum on Scottish independence.

"That", he opined in response to David Cameron, "is not what she said."

Rather she intended to review matters after - and only after - the cross-party Calman Commission has produced its ideas for the revamp of devolved powers.

So let me get this straight. When Ms Alexander deployed an unaccustomed demotic touch by declaring "bring it on", she was actually saying that this was an issue which should await the outcome of an extensive and lengthy review.

Mr Cameron said the Prime Minister was "losing touch with reality". Alternatively, one might suggest that he has apparently lost patience with Ms Alexander.

Far from endorsing her standpoint, he went out of his way to dilute it.

Substantial obstacles

This lends credence to the notion - floated on this blog yesterday - that there was both "anger and disappointment" in Westminster Labour circles over the manner and nature of Ms Alexander's initiative.

The Tory leader said, further, that Mr Brown had "lost control of the Scottish Labour Party".

Strictly, of course, this was a matter for the elected leader of the party at Holyrood. That led Team Alexander to insist that Mr Brown was "relaxed" about developments.

He did not look or sound hugely relaxed to me.

There's a further development on this story. It appears that there may be substantial obstacles in the path of Wendy Alexander's back-up plan - to table her own bill.

Firstly, she would require the support of at least one other party to table such a bill. Secondly, if there is the prospect of a Government Bill on a comparable topic - then a member's bill is ruled out.

Given that SNP ministers plan their own Bill for a referendum in 2010, this would appear to be a problem.

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There's more. Wendy Alexander tells me she has spoken to Gordon Brown post PMQs.

They are, apparently, "united" in their resolve to harry the SNP.

And those differences? Apparently, what matters is that they are, severally and collectively, targeting the SNP over the issue of an independence referendum.

Why, then, did the PM tell David Cameron that he was wrong in his suggestion that Ms Alexander wanted a referendum "now"?

Because, apparently, she doesn't. She wants to begin the lengthy legislative process asap so that the referendum could be held next year, not in 2010 or 2011.

Why did he say that the whole issue would have to await the report of the Calman Commission - when Wendy Alexander said the two issues were quite separate?

Apparently, there is no confusion. Both agree that reviewing the powers of the Scottish Parliament is important.

Both agree that it is right to harry the SNP who are, seemingly, backsliding over the issue of tabling a referendum bill. (That is, incidentally, news to the SNP.)

'Labour mess'

Is the issue damaging for Labour? Yes. It's a mess. SNP ministers in the Garden Lobby had to pinch themselves to stop grinning so evidently.

But, you know, Labour MSPs are, mostly, still adamant that the "early referendum" plan leaves them, ultimately, in a better place.

As one put it to me: "It's been messy, really messy, but we've got to the right strategy."

How did it come about? Wendy Alexander freelanced on a tactic she believes is correct without fully finalising consultation with colleagues, especially in Downing Street.

For Gordon Brown, this isn't part of the game plan. Quite simply, he doesn't want to talk about Scotland.

He needs to address Middle England/Britain: concerns over tax, housing, crime, immigration and the economy.

Further, talk of a referendum on Scotland is particularly unhelpful. Why would he favour a referendum on Scottish independence - a prospect he abhors - when he is simultaneously refusing repeated demands for a popular plebiscite on the Lisbon Treaty?


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