SNP savage Labour over referendum at first ministers questions

Alex Salmond, the Scottish National party (SNP) first minister of Scotland, has savaged his Labour counterpart Wendy Alexander at first minister’s questions.

The attack follows Ms Alexander’s calls on the SNP on Sunday to “bring on” a referendum.

To jubilant cheers from his supporters, Mr Salmond joked: “Let me acknowledge the progress Wendy Alexander has made over the last week.

“Who knows what side she’ll be campaigning on?”

Ms Alexander continued her attempt to double-bluff the SNP by calling on them to conduct a referendum now.

“The judgment of history will be with those who wanted to let the people speak, such as my colleagues and I,” she said.

“The uncertainty is damaging our country. I have offered early support for an early referendum. I’m not the problem, the first minister is the problem.”

Ms Alexander then called on the SNP to bring forward a bill next week for a referendum.

But Mr Salmond refused to do so, telling his counterpart his party would stick by the schedule specified in the SNP’s election manifesto.

“Wendy Alexander is not the only problem the Labour party has,” he continued, “but now we know she’s not the answer.”

The rowdy debate, in which Ms Alexander found it difficult to make herself heard above the jeers of SNP MSPs, follows a disastrous week for Labour’s first minister, where her attempt to outmanoeuvre the SNP damaged Gordon Brown himself.

The call for a referendum, which directly contradicted Mr Brown’s position on the issue, followed polls which showed the Scottish people would almost certainly reject independence.

Alex Salmond is hoping a full term of SNP government – currently enjoying healthy opinion poll ratings – and the possible election of a Conservative government will change their minds.

The Conservatives, who support Labour’s opposition to Scottish independence, used the confusion to accuse the prime minister of dithering.

In a letter to Mr Brown yesterday, David Cameron said: “You appear unable to lead your party in any one direction on this issue of vital importance to the whole of the UK.”

During prime minister’s questions yesterday, Mr Brown’s answers appeared to be at odds with those of Ms Alexander.

When asked by Mr Cameron whether he agreed with what Ms Alexander had said, Mr Brown responded: “What the leader of the Labour party in Scotland was pointing to was the hollowness of the SNP, which said that it wanted independence, said that it wanted it immediately, and now wants to postpone a referendum until 2010-11.”

Mr Cameron replied: “I think the prime minister is losing touch with reality. This is what Wendy Alexander said: ‘I don’t fear the verdict of the Scottish people’, she told BBC Scotland on Sunday: ‘Bring it on’. What else could that possibly mean?”