Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Saturday, 10 May 2008 13:35 UK

Confusion reigns in Labour ranks

By Tim Reid
Westminster reporter, BBC Scotland

"A week," so the saying goes, "is a long time in politics."

Gordon Brown and Wendy Alexander
Gordon Brown failed to support Wendy Alexander's stance in the Commons

But after this week, it must be time to coin a new catchphrase.

For 72 hours clearly deserves recognition too.

Three days, we have learnt, can turn a U-turn from a policy change to utter calamity and confusion.

It can pit colleague against colleague, party against party and it can turn a well-known Unionist stance into one of utter bewilderment.

What went on this week in the minds of two senior Labour politicians - one the prime minister and the other the supposedly close colleague he helped get into office - will possibly only ever be known when their memoirs come out.

Deep depression

But what is true is that it has left everyone else, from cabinet ministers to lowly backbenchers, in disbelief at their predicament.

After a disastrous showing in last week's English and Welsh elections, a deep depression set into Labour ranks.

But just two days later, last Sunday, when Wendy Alexander said the words "bring it on", many Labour politicians were heading towards the depths of despair.

Some of course back the referendum call she made, but few would argue this affair has been handled well on either side of the border.

When the Nationalists took control at Holyrood it was presumed that the biggest rifts, rows, splits and divisions would be caused between the SNP government and the Labour government at Westminster.

Alex Salmond and Wendy Alexander
Alex Salmond and Ms Alexander clashed over the issue in Holyrood

But no, what this week has proved is that the biggest row between London and Edinburgh so far has been between Labour colleagues.

We have this week seen ministers "incandescent with rage" whilst others have wandered around with their heads in their hands at the whole referendum debacle which Wendy Alexander sparked last Sunday.

Almost unprompted, senior Labour figures at Westminster have been quick not just to condemn or to criticise their Scottish colleague, but to pull out the daggers without apology.

One senior minister said of Ms Alexander: "Her leadership has been a car crash.

"This is the worst crisis so far for her, and she's a gift to the SNP."

But this senior Labour figure didn't stop there.

He went on to accuse Gordon Brown of misrepresenting the Scottish leader's views, Wendy Alexander of misrepresenting his views and as a result leaving no-one in the party with a clue what their policy was.

David Cameron
Mr Cameron accused Gordon Brown of losing control of Scottish Labour

David Cameron, the Tory leader, exchanged words with the prime minister at Question Time and in two subsequent letters, but concluded the second with the question: "Who speaks for the Labour Party?"

It's something many Labour insiders want to know too.

Is it Wendy Alexander who wants a referendum sooner rather than later?

Or is it Gordon Brown who has failed to support her calls so far, and seems to have distanced himself from the road she is travelling.

At least Ms Alexander has one supporter for her referendum call, which will cause Mr Cameron some embarrassment himself.

That person is none other than the former Scottish secretary, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who has come to the Scottish Labour leader's aid.

He said she's right and the Scottish people should be given their say, as early, he believes, as next May.

Run a mile

But the difference between the Tory peer and the Labour leader at Holyrood is consistency.

Because that view has been held and aired by Lord Forsyth for months.

He told the BBC's Newsnight last August that calling the SNP's bluff would make Alex Salmond run a mile, at a time when Wendy Alexander and her colleagues (all of them) were resolutely opposed.

In fact, Ms Alexander seemed, in public at least, completely opposed until very, very recently.

But as we said a week can be a long time in politics, and 72 hours can hurt.


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