Voting For a New Britain: Blair under pressure to reveal Lib- Lab `vote pact' for Scotland

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR was under pressure last night to disclose details of a secret deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats which could lead to a coalition in the new Scottish Parliament.

Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, wrote angry letters to both the Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, last night after senior Labour figures denied there was any deal.

A meeting in 1996, detailed in a new biography of Peter Mandelson by The Independent's chief political columnist, Donald Macintyre, thrashed out the bones of the agreement. Held at the home of the now Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, it also included Mr Blair, Mr Ashdown, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown and the now Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar. Other senior Liberal Democrats present included Archy Kirkwood, MP for Roxburgh and Berwick, and Menzies Campbell, now Liberal Democrat foreign affairs and defence spokesman.

The book said the two parties also promised to strive not to damage each other in the coming general election, and to work towards a coalition in Scotland if Labour failed to win a working majority in the elections for its new Parliament.

Pressed about the meeting yesterday, Mr Dewar refused to deny it had taken place. "I have not got an agreement with the Liberal Democrats. If a meeting took place, certainly you can take it that as a result there is no agreement. I do not have a list in my back pocket of Liberal Democrats," he told Labour's press conference in Glasgow yesterday morning.

Some Labour aides predicted that there would be Liberal Democrat ministers in the new Parliament, though, while others suggested there would be opposition to the move from both Labour and Liberal Democrat members. Moves at Westminster to bring the Liberal Democrats and Labour closer together met with fierce opposition from some quarters.

Mr Salmond dismissed the deal as "deeply undemocratic". In letters to Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown, he demanded to know whether Mr Macintyre's "impeccably sourced" book was wrong or whether Mr Dewar was failing to tell the whole truth. "The people of Scotland have a right to know what was decided at this secret London meeting in relation to the Scottish Parliament. Who is correct - Donald Macintyre or Donald Dewar?

"This is a major revelation which exposes the real motivation of London Labour and the Lib Dems in this campaign. They have tried to carve up the Scottish election campaign in London - on a cynical and negative anti- SNP agenda," he said.

The Conservatives also reacted angrily to the revelation. A party spokesman accused the Liberal Democrats of behaving like "concubines", favouring anyone who might advance their cause. "Heaven knows what was discussed. It looks as if they were trying to stitch up the Scottish elections. It is pretty vile to patronise the Scottish electorate like this and reveals a very Machiavellian approach to what was meant to be a refreshing election for Scotland," he said.

Mr Dewar had been repeatedly pressed for details of the meeting after reports that he might be prepared to oppose Mr Blair on the issue and refuse to form a coalition.

Yesterday the former Liberal leader, Lord (David) Steel of Aikwood, said a deal with Labour now looked most likely because it would almost certainly be the largest party.