SCOTTISH Labour was in freefall last night as senior figures openly fought with each other and with Jeremy Corbyn over whether to allow a second independence referendum.

In the biggest test of his leadership, Richard Leonard effectively lost control of his MSPs, as most of them defied both him and the UK party on the issue.

As left-wingers backed the UK leadership’s willingness to allow Indyref2 if Holyrood supported it, moderates insisted the party must block a referendum to defend the Union. 

MSPs were accused by colleagues of being “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, working to undermine Mr Leonard, and members of a “right-wing, kamikaze unionist faction”.

Nicola Sturgeon said Scottish Labour was “very publicly tearing itself asunder” over what should be a simple question of letting the people decide their own fate.

READ MORE: David Mundell: Independence majority at Holyrood in 2021 should spark referendum

Even former Tory Scottish Secretary David Mundell yesterday said if pro-independence parties won a Holyrood majority in 2021, the UK Government would “have to listen to that”.

It was the third – and worst – day of Labour infighting unleashed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell unilaterally announcing a change in party policy on another referendum. 

He told an audience on the Edinburgh Fringe on Tuesday that a future UK Labour government at Westminster would not block a referendum, as it would be undemocratic. He said: “It will be for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people to decide that. We would not block something like that. We would let the Scottish people decide.” 

That flatly contradicted Mr Leonard, who in March said that Labour would block Indyref2, even if a majority of MSPs requested it.

Despite Mr Leonard meeting Mr McDonnell the next day and stressing the 2014 vote should be seen a once-in-a-generation event, Mr McDonnell stuck to his position.

He said Labour would not be “set up by Nicola Sturgeon” as a bogeyman blocking a referendum.

“We will campaign against having a referendum, but we are not using parliamentary devices to block it - it’s as simple as that,” he said, adding Mr Corbyn felt the same way.

READ MORE: Labour would block Yes/No question on Scottish independence

The announcement, sprung on the Scottish party without consultation, infuriated many of the Labour MPs and MSPs, who had stood on manifestos fiercely opposing a new vote.

Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray called it “utterly irresponsible”.

However, Mr Leonard has since conspicuously failed to restate his March position, suggesting to some party insiders he has already backtracked out of loyalty to Mr Corbyn. 

The issue has inflamed existing tensions between pro- and anti-
Corbyn Labour MSPs, with the former backing the new UK leadership position and the latter faction opposed. It led to the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party (SPLP) yesterday releasing an extraordinary statement challenging Mr Corbyn’s authority. 

Backed by a majority of Labour’s 23 MSPs, it said the SPLP would not accept a change in policy being foisted on them by the UK leadership. It asserted the Scottish party’s hard-won autonomy, saying: “We are clear Labour’s position on Scotland’s future is a decision for Scottish Labour, which the UK Party must accept.”

It went on: “The SPLP support the stance taken by Richard Leonard as our Leader and back the policy position that he outlined. 

“We deplore any attempts to undermine the official policy position of the Scottish Labour Party and we express serious concerns about an apparent change in Labour’s position on a matter of vital importance to the future of Scotland and of the Scottish Labour Party itself. 

“Scottish Party policy is very clear - that is opposition to a second independence referendum.

“There is therefore an urgent need for the UK Party leadership to engage constructively with the Scottish Party leadership on the issue of the Party’s stance on the future of Scotland.”

It was issued by the chair of the SPLP, the Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie, a moderate who was sacked by Mr Leonard last year for briefing against him.

READ MORE: Letters: Labour no longer stands up for Scotland

It then emerged that Mr Leonard had opposed the release of the statement.

The CommonSpace website published a leaked email from Ms Baillie which said: “I have consulted Richard as I am required to do by standing orders, and it is fair to say that he does not want the statement to go out. 

“Let me stress again that the Group Executive wanted to be very clear in our support for Richard’s position.

“I appreciate this is a difficult place in which we find ourselves but I believe based on consultation that there is a preference for a clear statement from the group rather than colleagues continuing to freelance on the issue.”

CommonSpace also reported a senior Scottish Labour source saying the statement was not about supporting Mr Leonard, but undermining him.

It quoted a source saying: “This has nothing to do with Scottish Labour party policy and everything to do with Jackie Baillie’s determination to undermine Richard Leonard at every possible opportunity.

“She knows that a serious debate on this question is long overdue and is using the parliamentary group as cover to try and keep her own rightwing, kamikaze unionist faction from vanishing with only the 2015 election defeat to remember them by.”

Lothians MSP Neil Findlay, Mr Corbyn’s Scottish campaign manager in the 2016 leadership, tweeted a link to the article, adding: “I want to make it clear I did not support this statement going out and neither did many other members of the Labour group - this is an abuse of position by the chair of the group.”

The First Minister also tweeted a link, saying: “Imagine trying to explain to someone who knows nothing about Scottish politics that the proposition Labour is currently, and very publicly, tearing itself asunder over is as simple as ‘it should be up to the Scottish people to decide Scotland’s future’. Utterly absurd.”

Tory MSP Maurice Golden said Labour were selling their  MSPs down the river.

He said: “It’s completely obvious that the price the UK Labour Party is willing to pay to secure Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 is the Scottish Labour Party.”

 Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “The open divisions in the Labour Party on independence show they are not in a position to stand up for Scotland’s place in the UK.

“The Labour leadership’s scheming to get power at the expense of the country shows they can’t be trusted.

“I feel sorry for Labour MSPs who fought long and hard to keep Scotland in the UK but they are being ignored now by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”

Meanwhile, Shadow Scottish minister Paul Sweeney said a Labour government would block a straight Yes/No question in a second independence referendum.

The Glasgow North East MP said there should be a multiple-choice question on the ballot paper, with a federal United Kingdom as one of the options.

He told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland a Labour government would deliver “a radical transformation and federate the United Kingdom”.

He said: “That of course should be a question in that referendum in future. It shouldn’t just be a binary referendum, and we’ll be backing that option.”

Ahead of the 2014 referendum, then Tory Prime Minister David Cameron gave the SNP government a relatively free hand on the form of the referendum, provided it was a binary question and was held before 2015.

It allowed Alex Salmond to decide on a Yes/No format, and to campaign as Yes.

READ MORE: Iain Macwhirter: The question for SNP supporters now is: what would Alex Salmond do?

Mr Sweeney’s remarks suggest a Labour government would take a very different approach and try to set terms on a second vote.

However a federal system, in which the regions of England were also given new powers alongside the devolved nations, would depend on votes passing elsewhere in the UK.

As that could not be guaranteed, a Scottish vote for a federal system might go nowhere. 

When the last Labour government tried to take a step towards a federal system in 2004, with a referendum on an elected assembly for North East England, it was was rejected 78-22. 

Mr Findlay told the same radio programme he didn’t want a second referendum and would campaign “vociferously” against it, but it would only be democratic to allow it if the Nationalist parties won a majority at Holyrood on an explicit manifesto promise to have a new vote 

But he added: “I think in that process, any negotiated that they had would have to come back to a confirmatory vote of the Scottish people. I don’t want that referendum, but I would campaign against it.”