Sir Keir Starmer has said that “no responsible Prime Minister” would agree to Nicola Sturgeon’s timetable for a new independence referendum.
In a major speech on devolution, the Labour leader dismissed the First Minister’s plan of holding a second vote on leaving the UK soon after May’s Holyrood elections as irresponsible and “misguided”.
While Sir Keir has previously sent mixed messages on whether he believed Number 10 should block a vote in the event of the SNP winning convincingly next year, he suggested on Monday that he would back Boris Johnson in a post-election stand-off with Holyrood, even if a majority of pro-independence MSPs are elected by voters.
Ms Sturgeon has said that she wants a new vote “in the earlier part” of the next Holyrood parliamentary term, which runs between 2021 and 2026, while senior SNP figures have backed a second referendum next year.
Sir Keir said: “The last thing Scotland needs now is more years of division. So Labour will argue passionately against another independence referendum. We’ll argue that today, we’ll argue that tomorrow.
“It would be entirely the wrong priority to hold another Scottish independence referendum in the teeth of the deepest recession for 300 years while still fighting this pandemic while there is such uncertainty about how Brexit and coronavirus will affect us.
“That’s why Nicola Sturgeon’s calls for an independence referendum in the early part of the next Scottish Parliament, perhaps even next year, is so misguided.
“Given the damage this would cause, no responsible First Minister should contemplate that and no responsible Prime Minister would grant it.”
The UK Government has said it will refuse to allow another referendum to take place for a “generation” from 2014, a period the Scottish Secretary has defined as between 25 and 40 years.
Sir Keir said there should not be another vote while the UK’s economic and health situation is so precarious or until there had been a “proper assessment” of the consequences of independence, including for the currency, national security, jobs and taxes.
Ms Sturgeon has insisted that the Prime Minister will relent and allow a new vote should the SNP win convincingly in May, an assertion that has been questioned by some pro-independence activists.
Sir Keir said rather than supporting the status quo, Labour would instead back the “boldest devolution project for a generation” in an attempt to win back support north of the border.
The party is to set up a constitutional commission – advised by former prime minister Gordon Brown – to consider how best power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level throughout the UK.
However, Scottish Labour continues to lag behind the SNP in the polls, and in the European elections last year, came fifth, narrowly ahead of the Scottish Greens.
It would be unable to implement any UK-wide devolution plan unless it won power, with the next General Election not due until 2024.
Asked after his speech to name the biggest achievement of Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour leader since 2017, Sir Keir appeared unable to name one.
Mr Leonard survived an attempted coup by his own MSPs in September, who feared he would lead the party to disaster in May.
When asked what Mr Leonard’s biggest achievement had been, Mr Starmer did not name one, instead saying he had a “very strong working relationship” with his Scottish counterpart.