After Labour came a humiliating third behind the Tories in a Scottish by-election for a vacant European Parliament seat, Tony Blair's allies preferred to blame the unfortunate Labour candidate rather than the unpopularity of New Labour north of the border.
"It's all Woofie's fault," quipped one official. Kathleen Walker Shaw, Labour's standard-bearer in the by-election, appeared to be blissfully unaware of the local controversy over the three-year-old black and white collie cross, who hit the national headlines by winning a reprieve after being sentenced for growling at a postman. When asked about the case, she turned out to be one of the few people in Britain, let alone the Aberdeen area, who had not heard of the dog on death row.
In an accident-prone campaign Mrs Walker Shaw was accused of misleading the voters after listing her birthplace as Aberdeen, but then saying she was only conceived in the town and admitting she was born south of the border, in Stafford.
But her performance cannot disguise a very good result for the SNP, which held the North East Scotland Euro constituency with 48 per cent of the vote, and a huge setback for Labour just when Mr Blair had hoped the SNP bandwagon had been halted in the crucial months before next May's elections to the new Scottish Parliament. "It's back to square one," one minister admitted last night.
Ian Hudghton, the victorious SNP candidate, who won 48% of the vote, said the result showed that "Scotland is in the process of independence."
Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, said Labour had wheeled in its big guns for an autumn attack on his party - including Mr Blair; Gordon Brown, the Chancellor and Peter Mandelson, the Trade and Industry Secretary - but its campaign had badly misfired.
Helen Liddell, the Scottish Office Minister, admitted yesterday's result was "disappointing" but blamed the "unbelievably low" turnout of 20 per cent. She said Labour supporters stayed at home because there would be a full Euro election next June.
But Dennis Canavan, the left-wing Labour MP for Falkirk West, who is to stand against the party in the Scottish Parliament election after failing to win selection as a Labour candidate, said it was "absolutely humiliating" to come third in North East Scotland.
Mr Canavan said Labour had been damaged by the perception it was being taken over by a "centralised control-freak tendency", and by concentrating on negative attacks on the nationalists. He said Cabinet ministers had "turned the people of Scotland off" by suggesting they could not stand on their own two feet.
SCOTLAND NORTH EAST Result:
Ian Hudghton (SNP) 57,445 (48.03%, +5.25% since 1994 Euro elections) Struan Stevenson (Con) 23,744 (19.85%, +1.26%) Kathleen Walker Shaw (Lab) 22,086 (18.47%, -9.93%) Keith Raffan (Lib Dem) 11,753 (9.83%, +1.54%) Harvey Duke (Scottish Socialist Party) 2,510 (2.10%) Robin Harper (Green) 2,067 (1.73%, +0.55%). SNP maj 33,701 (28.18%) 2.00% swing C to SNP Electorate 582,610; Turnout 119,605 (20.53%, - 17.19%).