Keir Starmer’s calls for a coronavirus “Plan B” have been overshadowed after the Labour leader reignited a party row over Scottish independence.
Sir Keir had hoped to use a rare national TV address to focus on Boris Johnson’s “failure” to prepare for a second wave but the focus turned instead to constitutional politics after an ill-judged response to a question on the SNP.
Sir Keir, appearing on Sky News this evening, said the issue of a second poll was a “question for Scotland” and that he “stands by” previous comments in which he suggested Labour would not block another referendum if there was a pro-independence majority at May’s election.
The comments come a day after shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray told Labour Party conference: “The constitutional argument has been settled as far as the Scottish Labour Party is concerned, we are against independence, we are against a second independence referendum.”
Sir Keir had originally set out to make the case that the constitution should not be a debating issue in May, saying: “We will be making the argument, going into that election next May, that this is not the time for another divisive independence referendum; there are other priorities. I think it’s the last thing that we need.”
But asked several times if he stood by past comments on the issue, he said: “Well, these issues are questions for Scotland, I do stand by that.”
North-east Tory MP Andrew Bowie said the remarks revealed that “Labour cannot be trusted on the union”.
He added: “Sir Keir has had plenty of time to reflect on this. Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten to tell his colleagues north of the border.
“The likes of Richard Leonard and Ian Murray have been left out in the cold.
“These comments are indisputable evidence that Labour will not stand up for the Union.
“Only the Scottish Conservatives can be trusted to hold the SNP to account while advocating for a strong Scotland within the UK.”
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove added: “Sir Keir Starmer has a problem accepting referendum results.
“He tried to block Brexit, and now he wants to work with Nicola Sturgeon to renege on the Scottish referendum result and break up the UK.”
In his address, Sir Keir attempted to set out a response to the prime minister’s statement on coronavirus, demanding a ‘Plan B’ for the economy alongside new restrictions.
He said: “The return of this virus, and the return of restrictions, are not an act of God. They’re a failure of Government.
“The British people have done everything asked of them, but I’m afraid the Government has not. We’re a great country, we shouldn’t have one of the highest death rates in the world, or one of the worst recessions.
“It’s a national scandal.”