SCOTTISH ministers have been accused of “bullying” the UK’s public spending watchdog after it withdrew a politically explosive report about SNP tax policy.

The National Audit Office (NAO) took the unprecedented step of cancelling publication of a report due out today after it was queried by the SNP Government.

However the decision, late on Monday, came after the report had already been released to the media under embargo, meaning its contents were still widely reported.

The Tories accused the SNP of trying to “bully” the watchdog into shelving the report, a charge furiously denied by Nicola Sturgeon’s official spokesman.

READ MORE: One in five paying more income tax under SNP

The dispute centres on a new NAO estimate of how many Scots taxpayers are paying more than their English counterparts because of the different tax regime north of the border.

In Scotland, people start paying the 40p higher rate of income tax when they earn £43,000, but in England and Wales the 40p rate doesn’t kick in until people earn £45,000.

Drawing on HMRC data, the Scottish Government say around 366,000 people pay more, because they pay the higher and additional rates of tax.

However using unpublished HMRC and other economic statistics, the NAO estimated 507,000 of Scotland’s 2.6m taxpayers are paying more than their English equivalents.

The new estimate suggests that, rather than one in seven Scottish taxpayers getting relatively higher bills because of SNP policy, it would be almost one in five.

The difference is politically sensitive because it would mean the SNP’s tax plan had created far more losers than previously thought, and it may therefore be harder to raise income tax again next year, as most of the Holyrood parties would like.

READ MORE: One in five paying more income tax under SNP

The NAO said it was “holding off” formal publication of the report for an unspecified time because of the disagreement with Edinburgh over the “sensitive” number.

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “Once again we see this SNP government trying to bully anyone who they disagree with.

“It is clear that they have pressurised the National Audit Office into this climb-down, simply because the SNP didn’t like what they were hearing.

“This was an independent report that rightly highlighted that a huge number of Scots will be paying more tax thanks to the decisions of the Scottish Government.

“The SNP have form for this, and they need to learn that they cannot hide from their dreadful record in government.”

An NAO spokesman said: “This NAO report will be published when we have determined the most accurate estimate of the number of higher rate taxpayers in Scotland.

"The decision not to publish the report today was solely an NAO decision. We expect to publish our report before Christmas 2017.”

READ MORE: One in five paying more income tax under SNP

The First Minister’s spokesman called the bullying claim “complete and utter nonsense”, and said it was perfectly reasonable for government officials to have queried the NAO figures.

He said: “It’s got to be legitimate for Scottish Government officials to speak to counterparts about the accuracy of figures.

“The Tories should think twice about trying to impugn the integrity of hard-working and impartial civil servants, because that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson added: “Our recent discussion paper on income tax estimated that there will be around 366,000 higher and additional rate taxpayers in Scotland next year – a figure in line with HMRC estimates."