THE leader of one of Scotland's largest councils yesterday launched a remarkable public diatribe against the country's Finance Minister, calling him "a runt".

Jim McCabe, the Labour head of North Lanarkshire, made the comments about Tom McCabe, who is also minister for public service reform, at the annual Cosla conference in St Andrews.

After the minister joked that the unrelated Mr McCabe was his grandfather, the council leader said: "He said he's my grandson. As you probably know, in every litter there's a runt. We used to drown them, now we send them up to Holyrood."

The council leader was also applauded by councillors when he said angrily that half of MSPs had "nothing to do and all day to do it", and were sucking powers away from councils to look busy.

He said none of them could cope with the practical side of delivering public services. "When the s*** hits the fan, these guys cannae deal with it. We're the guys that shift the s*** for them, that's what we're there for," he said.

Tom McCabe chose not to respond in kind to the remarks. Last night, Jim McCabe felt obliged to issue a damage limitation statement. He said: "Can I make it crystal clear that any comments I made about the minister today were tongue in cheek. I have the utmost respect for Tom McCabe both as a man and a minister.

"This was simply a bit of light-hearted political knockabout. The idea of the sessions was to generate debate and the topic of our debate was Scottish Executive - partners or rivals, on which we both agreed that 99% of the time we are partners."

Earlier, despite being pressed by several delegates, the minister repeatedly failed to deny reports that the executive may soon remove education and other key services from council control.

Professor Jim Gallagher, a civil servant on secondment to Glasgow University, last month published a report floating the idea, leading many councillors to believe he was flying a kite on behalf of ministers.

In a show of hands, almost all delegates agreed ministers were also planning to cut the number of councils as part of wide-ranging reforms after May's elections. The minister insisted no decision had been taken to reform education in isolation, but said it would be wrong to "cherry-pick" any council function and make it immune from reform.

He then said there should not be 32 councils, and different parts of the public sector could end up fusing.

"I don't say that there's a right number here. Certainly I don't say that 32 is the right number. I would like to try and establish different organisational boundaries, but it might not necessarily be only local government boundaries. If local government and health take an entirely different view to the delivery of primary care services, then we might be creating new types of organisations."

Earlier, Tony Blair's former spin doctor conceded Labour could lose the Scottish elections. In a question-and-answer session at the conference, Alastair Campbell said he was crossing his fingers the SNP did not win in May.

Asked why the media focused on the possibility of a Nationalist victory, he said: "None of us know what the result is going to be, but let's just cross our fingers and assume it's not necessarily as it's being portrayed."

He said SNP leader Alex Salmond put him in mind of an Australian cricketer's comment on the English batsman Geoffrey Boycott: he clearly fell in love with himself at an early age, and has been deeply faithful ever since.

Mr Campbell told delegates not to feel disheartened by a "culture of negativity" in the media. He said even late First Minister Donald Dewar had come to him "almost begging" for help with a hostile press.

Meanwhile, Inverclyde Council, which was condemned as the worst run in Scotland less than two years ago, was last night praised for its work with vulnerable mothers and received the special chairman's prize at the Cosla excellence awards for its pregnancy advisory service.