David Cameron is considering a UK-led referendum on Scottish independence to prevent the Scottish Nationalists from setting the terms, question and timing to suit themselves, British government ministers admitted yesterday.
Some of the Prime Minister's aides want him to organise a Scottish independence referendum, set and run by Westminster – and they are in discussions with Labour to seek cross-party support. They believe this referendum could be held in 2012 or 2013 – much sooner than the 2014-15 timetable favoured by Scotland's SNP First Minister, Alex Salmond – and it would contain a straightforward Yes/No question on independence.
It is understood that the Prime Minister has yet to make up his mind but he has allowed soundings to be taken, both on his own side and on the Labour benches, to discover whether there is widespread support for this ploy of hijacking the referendum issue from the SNP.
David Mundell, a junior minister at the Scotland Office, admitted yesterday he had been "testing the water" with Labour MPs and peers. Mr Mundell said: "I have spoken to a lot of people about what their views are in relation to a referendum and all the issues around it."
One of the other issues which Mr Mundell has been exploring is whether the Coalition Government might be able to amend the current laws to force the Scottish Government to ask a clear Yes/No question on independence.
Mr Salmond has made it clear he favours a three-option referendum with the Scottish people being asked to back full independence, the status quo or "independence lite" – a settlement which many unionists believe would leave Scotland independent in all but name.
There have also been suggestions from the Nationalists that Scots would be able to choose more than one option in the referendum – prompting critics to warn that the SNP could secure independence even if this was only the second-best supported option.
Conservative ministers at Westminster want to stop all these developments, moves they believe are simply attempts by Mr Salmond to manipulate every part of the referendum process to suit himself. As a result, plans have been discussed for a "Clarity Act".
Modelled on a Canadian law of the same name, the Act could force the Scottish Nationalists to put just one simple question to the Scottish people. It is understood that ministers are considering inserting a new clause into the Scotland Bill which would perform the role of a full Clarity Act by setting strict terms for any referendum on Scottish independence.
Government sources said last night that amending the Scotland Bill to restrict the SNP's manoeuvrings on the referendum was the most likely first step for the UK Government.
Labour will not decide its position on the issue until after its new Scottish leader is elected next month..
Lottery winners to fund SNP bid
The Ayrshire couple who won a record £161m on the EuroMillions lottery are to fund SNP leader Alex Salmond's campaign for Scottish independence. Colin and Chris Weir have pledged a "seven-figure donation" to the campaign.
Mr Weir, 64, stood as the party's candidate in Ayr at the 1987 general election.