Two aides quit over Blair U-turn on devolution

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Political Correspondent

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, will today adopt a defiant tone in defence of his U-turn over referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution after John McAllion, MP for Dundee East, resigned from the front bench in disgust.

In a speech in Edinburgh and a string of interviews, Mr Blair will brush aside a furious backlash in the Scottish Labour Party, which yesterday produced two resignations. Lord Ewing, a former Labour minister, also quit as joint chairman of the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention.

Mr Blair will dismiss charges of betrayal as "utter nonsense" and urge his Edinburgh audience to ask whether a referendum is sensible or not. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan tried to set up a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly, but failed. "If we win the election, I want to be the prime minister who does it," he will say.

Mr McAllion, a spokesman on Scottish constitutional issues, was angry that he was not consulted, and particularly annoyed by the decision to ask a second referendum question in Scotland about the tax-varying power of a Scottish parliament. "I'm absolutely furious at the change that has been announced. It's a disgrace," he said. He described the decision as an "insult" to the Constitutional Convention, in which Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, church leaders, trade unionists and others have for several years been laying plans for a Scottish parliament.

Critics in the Scottish Labour Party and Scottish press have attacked the referendum on tax powers as a "retreat" in the face of a sustained, blistering attack by Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, on Labour's plans for a "tartan tax".

However, at a meeting of Scottish Labour MPs on Wednesday night, only three MPs, Irene Adams, Willie McKelvey and Dennis Canavan, attacked the proposals, while 19 MPs spoke in favour. Mr Blair is expected to say more today about how Labour can justify Scotland having more MPs per head of population than England if it has its own parliament. Opinion polls suggest that up to 70 per cent of the Scottish people would support an Edinburgh parliament in a referendum.

Labour's plans plans for Scottish and Welsh assemblies

t Referendums in Scotland and Wales in first six months of a Labour government. Both will ask if people support Labour's plans for assemblies.

t If approved, a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly will be legislated for in the first year.

t In Scotland, people will also be asked if they support the Scottish parliament having the power to vary the standard rate of income tax by 3p in the pound, up or down.

t A Welsh assembly should be elected by a system that has "an element of proportionality", rather than the first-past- the-post system which has been preferred by the Welsh Labour Party in the past.