By Martin Kelly
Alistair Darling is tonight facing demands to reveal the content of “private discussions” he has had with Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Nicholas MacPherson, on the issue of the independence referendum.
The Labour MP, who heads the anti-independence campaign Better Together, was appearing in front of Holyrood’s Economy Committee where he was questioned by MSP Joan McAlpine.
The former Chancellor was asked how many times he had met with Sir Nicholas. The Labour MP replied: “Oh, I don’t know, maybe…I don’t know. I don’t want to give you an inaccurate answer.”
Mr Darling confirmed he had several private conversations with Sir Nicholas but, despite being repeatedly asked, refused to reveal whether the currency of an independent Scotland was discussed.
“I discussed many things. I’m not going to go into private conversations, but in terms of what I’ve said to you, I’m not going to go into private discussions I have with him or anybody else for that matter. But, what I can tell you that is in relation to whatever advice he happened to give the current government, I’ve not discussed that, no.” he said.
Ms McAlpine pressed the Labour MP: “I’m asking what he said to you. Did you discuss aspects of the independence referendum with your friend Nick Macpherson?”
However the Better Together head remained defiant, and repeated: “I am not going to discuss private conversations any more than I’d discuss a private conversation I’ve had with anybody.”
Confirmation that the Better Together head met privately with the Treasury Permanent Secretary comes after the Guardian newspaper revealed an unnamed Treasury source had said Mr Darling and Downing Street adviser Andrew Dunlop had been behind the currency announcement made by UK Chancellor George Osborne.
According to the Guardian, the unnamed Treasury source said: “Alistair and Andrew are running the show – we just did what they said.”
The newspaper also revealed an unnamed coalition minister, said to be close to the No campaign, had admitted that a currency union would be agreed and that claims of no-agreement on the pound if Scots voted Yes, were merely campaign tactics.
In today’s committee session, No campaign director Blair McDougall also confirmed that Better Together were informed of the UK Government position days in advance of its announcement.
McDougal, asked if his campaign group had been informed of the decision to block a currency union, replied: “In a matter of days before it had happened, yes.”
Mr McDougall’s statement that he knew what the UK Government would be announcing days before George Osborne told the media on his Edinburgh visit appears to contradict statements from the Chancellor himself.
The Chancellor said he based his decision to block a currency union on advice from Sir Nicholas MacPherson. Mr Osborne also said he was only made aware of the UK Treasury advice 24 hours before he announced a currency union would not be on the table.
Commenting on the evidence from both men, MSP Joan McAlpine said:
“Alistair Darling has given the game away. It is now impossible to escape the conclusion that Westminster’s currency position is political bluff and bluster from a desperate No campaign that is losing the arguments and losing ground.
“Mr Darling must now be open and reveal the full content of his discussions with the head of the Treasury.
“Without that full and frank disclosure, the inescapable conclusion is that he – as a backbench opposition MP – has been directing policy announcements by the Treasury, which would be an utterly extraordinary and unacceptable state of affairs.”
Ms McAlpine added:
“Blair McDougall’s admission that the No campaign were given secret briefings by the UK Government ahead of the Chancellor’s currency announcement also exposes the extent to which Better Together are a front for a Tory-led plan to scare voters across Scotland.
“But it also raises some extremely serious questions for the No campaign given that Sir Nicholas has made clear that even George Osborne did not see his note on currency advice until perhaps just ’24 hours before’ it was published.
“Did Blair McDougall see Sir Nicholas’s advice before the Chancellor?
“All of this comes as Westminster continues to misrepresent the position of the Bank of England Governor on a currency union – something the Prime Minister did three times in one day last week. The reality is that the Governor has made clear the bank will implement whatever is agreed between the two governments.”