DAVID Cameron faced further embarrassment over the date of the independence referendum after the Scottish Conservatives' official submission to the UK Government's consultation called for the poll to be held by October 2013.
The Prime Minister's public declaration earlier this week that he was "not too fussy" about the poll date – conceding Alex Salmond's preferred timescale of autumn 2014 – led some Scottish Tories to accuse him of undermining their leader, Ruth Davidson, and leaving her "hung out to dry".
One Tory MSP suggested Mr Cameron's remarks showed it "did not occur to him the view of the Scottish party or its leader might even matter", while another complained there was "absolutely no communication from London".
No 10 insisted that it was "not inconsistent" for the PM to say he was not fussed about the date while maintaining he wanted the referendum sooner rather than later.
However, senior Coalition sources have said Mr Cameron's relaxed view of when Scotland should decide its future does not chime with the ministerial mantra that the delay is costing Scotland jobs and holding back investment.
At Westminster, the issue came up at Commons question time when Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, in response to Labour's John Robertson, repeated the line that the UK Government would like to see a referendum sooner rather than later.
The MP for Glasgow North West later accused the Lib-Con Coalition of a "slapstick approach to government [which] is seriously risking the future of the UK".
He added: "There may be two parties in this Government but they need to have one voice when it comes to the independence referendum. If they are not sure about their policy on the date, voters will start asking: 'What else are they not sure on regarding independence?'"
Yesterday, the Scotland Office published for the first time all 3000 submissions to the UK Government's consultation exercise, which ended in March.
In their submission, the Scottish Conservatives said: "A referendum should be held by October 2013 at the latest which gives more than sufficient time for both its organisation and extensive public debate on the issues to enable voters to make an informed choice."
Submissions from individual Tory MSPs such as David McLetchie, the former Scottish Conservative leader, used the same form of words as those from a number of Conservative councillors.
Mark Menzies, the Scottish politician who is the Tory MP for Fylde, said in his submission the referendum "should be held by October 2013 as the uncertainty caused by delaying it further could damage the economy".
The Scottish Liberal Democrats, in their official response to the consultation, argued for the referendum to be held "as soon as practicable", noting: "It could be held in the late summer or early autumn of 2013. If the Scottish Government chooses to delay the referendum until the autumn of 2014, we are concerned this will have a detrimental effect on Scotland's economy."
Several Labour MPs and MSPs also suggested a poll could be held next year. Labour peer Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the former Nato secretary-general, said in his submission: "The referendum should be as soon as possible.
"Delaying it till late 2014 will create an atmosphere of total uncertainty and will damage the economic prospects for Scotland."
The Scotland Office highlighted how 70% of respondents, including several businesses, "agreed with the UK Government the referendum should take place sooner rather than later".
Maitland Mackie, of Mackies ice-cream, said on the issue of timing "the sooner the better", while Boyd Tunnock, of the leading family baker, said: "As a reasonably large employer in Scotland, I feel the referendum should take place as soon as possible."
Allied Vehicles warned about a "climate of uncertainty", and said waiting until 2014 was "too long and may have an adverse impact on business confidence".
However, some businesses made clear there needed to be sufficient time for arguments on both sides to be aired properly.
The Society of Radiographers said in its submission: "We do not support the option of 'sooner rather than later' if this is simply a dogmatic position which would result in inadequate time for the electorate to make an informed choice."
Nicola Spence, of Spirit Aero Systems, said: "Given the current economic climate and the instability of the financial position of both the UK and Scotland, the timing of a referendum should be delayed as long as possible."