Blair spurns a deal on Scots vote

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The Independent Online
Labour leaders plan to ditch the policy of a second referendum on Scottish devolution agreed in a welter of old-fashioned Labour confusion last weekend.

Sources close to Tony Blair and George Robertson, the Scottish affairs spokesman, made it clear yesterday that the pledge, which is not in the party's early manifesto, would not be in the final version either.

Mr Robertson is expected to be forced into an embarrassing "S-turn" as early as next week. He did not consult Mr Blair before agreeing at Saturday's meeting of the ruling Scottish Labour Executive to the "compromise", which backed the leadership's plan for a referendum only at the price of a second one.

Labour then found itself committed to a two-question referendum on a Scottish parliament, which would ask voters separately to approve its tax-cutting and tax-raising powers, followed by another referendum if the Edinburgh parliament actually decided to use those powers.

Mr Robertson defended the decision as an endorsement of the leadership but the minority on the executive who wanted to embarrass Mr Blair managed to land the party with a policy supported by no one apart from Mohammed Sarwar, the Glasgow parliamentary candidate who proposed it.

What the Conservatives have dubbed the "tartan tax" issue has caused turmoil in the Scottish Labour Party since Mr Blair sprung the referendum plan on it in June. Activists have accused Labour's leaders of being defensive about their plans for a tax-raising assembly, with many blaming the ruthless drive of the shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to prevent Labour being portrayed as the high-tax party.

Jack Straw, the party's spokesman on constitutional affairs, defended the new policy yesterday. He said on BBC radio: "Who is to complain about the fact that we're going to ask the Scottish people whether they support our proposals for a Scottish parliament and its tax-raising powers and, where the tax raising powers are concerned, not once but twice?" He later launched a vigorous defence of Labour's apparent intention to rule by referendum. "We are unapologetic that on these major constitutional changes people should be asked their opinion," he said.

Mr Blair welcomed the decision of the Scottish executive as "mature and sensible", but is thought to be sensitive to the ridicule the new policy has attracted. Dennis Canavan, the dissident Labour MP, declared: "If the Labour leadership carry on like this, they will end up having a referendum every weekend. The whole thing is preposterous."

Some Labour MPs have mockingly suggested that the party should now propose a third referendum asking the question: "Are you sure?"