Jeremy Corbyn’s closest ally has raised the possibility of a Labour-SNP pact at Westminster by saying a future Labour government would not block a second Scottish independence referendum.
In a break with party policy which has incensed some Scottish Labour MPs, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said any decision about holding a vote on independence would be up to the Scottish parliament.
Speaking in Edinburgh, Mr McDonnell also declared that Mr Corbyn would “never” step down if other opposition parties demanded it to form a government of national unity in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock.
He said that in the event of Boris Johnson losing a vote of confidence in parliament, Labour would form a minority government, seek to implement its manifesto and if it was voted down hold a general election.
Mr McDonnell’s highly significant statements on the Scottish National Party’s demands for another independence vote and the Brexit stalemate came in an interview with broadcaster Iain Dale at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, would never allow her MPs at Westminster to vote with a Labour government in a hung parliament without a pledge to allow a second independence referendum, which the Tories have vowed to block.
Putting himself firmly at odds with the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, Mr McDonnell said: “It will be for the Scottish parliament and the Scottish people to decide that.
“They will take a view about whether they want another referendum. Nicola Sturgeon said by late next year or the beginning of 2021. We would not block something like that. We would let the Scottish people decide. That’s democracy.
“The Scottish parliament will come to a considered view on that and they will submit that to the government and the English parliament itself.
“If the Scottish people decide they want a referendum, that’s for them.”
And anticipating criticism for his departure from party policy, Mr McDonnell added: “There are other views within the party but that’s our view.”
Mr Leonard has said that if Labour took power in Westminster the party would refuse to grant the Scottish parliament at Holyrood the power to hold another vote.
“What we said in the manifesto at the 2017 election was that there is no case for, and we would not support, a second independence referendum,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
On whether Mr Corbyn would stand aside to allow a so-called “government of national unity” in the event of Mr Johnson losing a confidence vote in the Commons, Mr McDonnell said: “It won’t happen.
“I think we’d form a minority government, seek to implement our manifesto and we’d expect the other opposition parties and other MPs to vote for those policies and if they don’t, we’ll go back to the country.
“If they want to vote against a real living wage, if they want to vote against £70bn worth of investment in Scottish infrastructure, if they want to vote against a green industrial revolution to tackle climate change then so be it, we’ll go back to the people and then let them explain to the people why they wouldn’t support those policies.
“We want to change the world, we’re not going to be held back by other parties.”
Mr McDonnell’s comments about a second Scottish independence referendum were bitterly attacked by the Labour MP Ian Murray, a former shadow Scottish secretary at Westminster.
“These are utterly irresponsible comments from John McDonnell that betray our party’s values,” he said.
“The Labour Party is an internationalist party founded on a vision of solidarity and we should never seek to appease nationalists, whether they be for Brexit or Scottish independence, who want to divide communities and people.”
SNP MSP George Adam said: “It is for the Scottish people to decide upon their future. The Scottish government has a crystal clear mandate to give them that choice.
“Polling this week shows that they want that choice sooner rather than later – with a majority in favour of the opportunities of independence.
“For any Westminster government to deny that would be a democratic outrage, and Tory posturing on the issue is completely unsustainable.
“We trust this position will now receive the fulsome backing of Richard Leonard and Scottish Labour.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “These comments are astonishingly irresponsible and not in (the) interests of Scotland or the UK.
“It’s bad enough with Boris Johnson bungling on Brexit and independence but to have the Labour Party’s (shadow) chancellor piling in makes it a whole lot worse.
“It’s clear only the Liberal Democrats are robustly standing up for Scotland’s place in the UK and the EU.”
During his interview, Mr McDonnell also ruled out standing to be Labour leader in the future and said he would like a woman MP to succeed Mr Corbyn.
“I’ve tried to run for Labour leader twice and I was so popular I didn’t even get on the ballot,” he said.
He said Corbyn allies Rebecca Long Bailey, Dawn Butler, Emily Thornberry and Laura Pidcock were “incredibly talented” prospective leaders.
“They are committed to transforming the world, they are not career politicians,” he said.
A Scottish Labour Party spokesperson said: “John McDonnell was clearly not advocating a second independence referendum. He made clear the huge benefit a UK Labour government will bring for the people of Scotland.
“Labour stands for an end to the status quo in the UK: economically, politically and constitutionally. The real change we need to see in society is an end to austerity and investment in our people, our communities and our public services.”