Sir Keir Starmer yesterday delivered a huge boost to Nicola Sturgeon's plans for a second independence referendum by conceding she would have a mandate for a vote if the SNP wins a Holyrood majority next year.
For the first time since he became Labour leader, he said that he stood by comments he made in January, when he said independence was a matter for the Scottish people and that he did not believe it would be right to block a new vote if it was agreed by Holyrood.
Since he replaced Jeremy Corbyn in April, Sir Keir has tried to dodge questions about what should happen if the SNP wins a majority next year, which polls currently suggest is the most likely result.
However, pushed repeatedly over the issue on Sky News, he said he stood by his previous comments that “these issues are questions for Scotland”.
His comments will be welcome to Ms Sturgeon, who has come under pressure from sections of her own party for a failure to deliver a second referendum.
She has already said a commitment to holding another referendum on separation will be part of the SNP manifesto for the 2021 elections.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly ruled out granting powers for holding another independence referendum, pointing to comments from senior SNP figures that the 2014 referendum, in which 55 per cent of Scots chose to stay in the UK, was a “once in a generation” event.
Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly insisted he would be forced to change his mind in the event of an SNP majority, as refusing to do so would be anti-democratic and “unsustainable”.
While the Prime Minister has a large Commons majority and would have the numbers to resist calls to temporarily transfer powers, as David Cameron did to allow the 2014 vote to take place, a lack of Labour support would leave him isolated on the issue.
Some Scottish Tories fear a continued refusal to allow another referendum could play into the SNP’s hands in the long-term, by giving them legitimate grounds to argue the views of Scottish voters were being ignored in London.
In January, Sir Keir said that if the SNP won a majority in the 2021 Holyrood elections in May, “they will have a mandate for that [an independence vote]” and that “I don’t think it’s right to block anything that comes from a parliament here [Scotland]".
While he reiterated his own opposition to another “divisive” referendum, asked about his previous comments about a mandate yesterday, he said: “Well, these issues are questions for Scotland. I do stand by that.”
Since the outset of the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon’s approval ratings have soared, and for the first time in history, opinion polls in Scotland consistently show a majority in favour of breaking up the UK.
While the Tories in Scotland have consistently been opposed to another vote, conflicting messages on the constitution from Labour have been seen as contributing to the party’s decline in support north of the border.
Going into the 2015 general election, the party held 41 of 59 Scottish seats. Currently, it holds only one, having lost ground to both the Conservatives and the SNP in what was once one of its more staunch heartlands.
As he seeks to return Labour to power at Westminster, Sir Keir admitted he would first need to reverse the party's fortunes in Scotland.
He said: "I'll be perfectly open about this, there'll be no route back for Labour that doesn't run through Scotland."
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Responding to Sir Keir’s comments on independence, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, said: "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."
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, said: "We are eight months from the Scottish Parliament election and already Labour are throwing in the towel and agreeing to the SNP’s demands.
“Yet again, Labour are proving they’re too much of a mess to stand up to the nationalists. They’ll give in at the first chance they get."