Jeremy Corbyn “made the SNP’s day” by stating that a second independence referendum would be “absolutely fine”, Ruth Davidson has said as senior Labour figures tried desperately to repair the damage to their party’s Unionist credentials.
The Scottish Tory leader said Mr Corbyn’s intervention during a visit to Glasgow on Saturday showed that “he is happy to let the SNP roll over him” and argued it was a “complete betrayal” of voters who had once looked up to Labour to defend the Union.
Hilary Benn said Mr Corbyn’s comments did not represent Labour policy and Rebecca Long-Bailey, a rising star of Labour’s Corbynite Left, argued the leader had merely been stating that the party would not oppose another referendum if Scots wanted one.
However, in a separate interview that caused further confusion about his party’s stance, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, said Labour would have to see the “nature” of any request before making a decision.
Mr Corbyn’s remarks threaten to inflict further electoral damage on Labour in this May’s local authority elections and were a boon for the SNP ahead of the Nationalists’ spring conference in Aberdeen on Friday at which Nicola Sturgeon is expected to make an announcement about another vote.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, immediately sought to exploit Labour’s credibility problem on the Union by announcing Lib Dem MPs would vote against transferring the powers to Holyrood for another referendum.
Mr Rennie’s hard-line stance went further than Labour and the Tories, both of whom have said they would not oppose a formal request from the Scottish Parliament for a second vote for fear of a voter backlash.
Often asked why I resigned from Shadow Cabinet. Ladies & Gentlemen I give u Jeremy Corbyn. He's destroying the party that soo many need.— Ian Murray (@IanMurrayMP) March 11, 2017
His announcement came as an opinion poll showed 70 per cent of Scots aged more than 60 said they opposed independence. The Survation poll for the Sunday Post found this figure had increased since last March, when a survey recorded 64.4 per cent opposition.
Mr Corbyn’s gaffe came at Labour’s ‘new economics’ conference on Saturday when he was asked whether another referendum was inevitable. He replied: “If a referendum is held then it is absolutely fine, it should be held.”
Senior Scottish Labour figures reacted with fury, with Ian Murray, the party’s only MP north of the Border, accusing him of “destroying the party.” Nicola Sturgeon reacted with glee, tweeting that it was “always a pleasure to have Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in Scotland.”
Ms Davidson argued that the Labour leader’s “simple answer” should have been that a second referendum should not happen and the SNP should drop its demand for one.
"Instead, Jeremy Corbyn came to Glasgow and made the SNP's day by declaring that such a referendum is 'absolutely fine,” the Scottish Tory leader said.
"At this time, people in Scotland who voted No to independence in 2014 want want pro-UK leaders to demonstrate resolve against the SNP's threat of a second referendum.”
Mr Rennie told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme: “It was the same kind of casual indifference that he seems to have about our fate with the European Union. He just doesn’t seem to care about the United Kingdom sticking together.
“I know that’s not the view of my colleagues in the Scottish Labour Party – they must be tearing their hair out this morning.”
He confirmed that the nine Lib Dem MPs would vote against a Section 30 order – the relevant legal mechanism - transferring the powers to hold another referendum to Holyrood.
Speaking earlier on ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme, Mr Benn said he did not agree with Mr Corbyn’s statement that a second referendum should happen.
The Labour MP, who chairs the Commons Brexit select committee, said “Jeremy set out his view” but reiterated that Labour’s policy is to oppose another vote being staged.
Ms Long-Bailey, the Shadow Business Secretary, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that Mr Corbyn had made it “quite clear yesterday that if the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people wanted to hold a second referendum, then we would advise Westminster not to block that because it’s the democratic will of the people.”
But, in an interview conducted shortly before Mr Corbyn made his remarks, Mr McDonnell appeared to contradict her by stating: “We'll wait and see what the nature of the Section 30 is. We'd have to see what the detail of that is.”
Scottish Labour then issued a statement, saying the party “is firmly opposed to a second referendum. Our country is divided enough and we will vote against any SNP plans for another divisive referendum.”