Bitter wrangling between the governments in Edinburgh and London over the terms of a referendum on Scottish independence is nearly over with a deal expected within days, it emerged last night.
An agreement on the referendum is expected to be announced before the end of October after being ratified by Alex Salmond and David Cameron. Talks between the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, and Scotland's Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, have inched the two sides closer and the pair will talk some more in the next few days.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations, the coalition government has agreed in principle to two key SNP demands: holding the referendum in autumn 2014 and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to have a vote. Crucially, in return, the SNP has agreed to drop its call for an additional question on the ballot paper, which would ask voters whether they wanted a greater transfer of powers from London under "devo max" or "devo plus". There will be a single question: yes or no to independence.
The extra question had been a demand of Mr Salmond, but it is understood that Ms Sturgeon and other senior ministers were happy to settle for a question on independence.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, the First Minister suggested his government had given way on the second question when he said: "The UK government is clearly not willing to offer devo max or fiscal autonomy as an option. So I suspect … a lot's going to depend on people who support economic powers for the [Scottish] Parliament but find that the UK government is stopping them being able to move forward."
Issues remain over updating the electoral roll for 16- and 17-year-olds in time for the vote. It would also set a precedent for other elections across the UK, with campaigners likely to demand that Westminster elections are extended to under-18s.
There is disagreement over spending limits for the two campaign groups – Better Together and Yes Scotland. Draft proposals have suggested each organisation could spend up to £750,000 each, but coalition ministers have demanded a higher limit.