“WHATEVER I say will be what Anas says,” Keir Starmer told journalists during a campaign event in Scotland on Friday.

The UK Labour leader said that Scottish Labour’s Anas Sarwar and he would speak “as a team” so it “doesn't really matter which of us says it” after a question on the SNP’s independence proposals for the next General Election.

During a campaign event ahead of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, Starmer was asked about the SNP leadership’s plan to treat returning “the most” Scottish MPs as a mandate to open negotiations on independence.

The first time the issue was raised, Starmer largely avoided the question, responding: “What I'd say to the First Minister is, if you've got a record to stand on, come here and tell us what it is. Because all of this divisive politics is there as a mask for the record.”

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Sarwar then cut in to add that the SNP are “changing the goalposts”.

The Scottish Labour group leader went on: “They were going from being a de facto referendum where they wanted 50%+1 of the vote to now saying the most seats.

“This is a party that's in eternal decline, has no clear strategy for the election, and the one thing we do know is the next General Election is not going to be fought on the SNP’s terms. It's going to be a change election.”

The question of whether, as prime minister, he would negotiate on independence with the SNP if the party won “the most” Westminster seats at a General Election was again put to Starmer.

Sarwar began to answer, before Starmer (below) was asked to give his view.

He replied: “Well, whatever I say will be what Anas says. So it doesn't really matter which of us says it because we work as a team and we speak as a team.

The National:

“But Anas is right to say that yet again we descend into this SNP-led discussion, which is not about the cost of living crisis, not about the health service, not about the way that they've lost control of education and the economy here in Scotland. But it is about a divisive issue about the constitution.

“I think their priorities are completely wrong, and I've spent a lot of time in Scotland this year.

"This is the sixth time I've been up here talking to lots of people and everybody I meet and it's the same everywhere in Scotland. It's actually the same across the United Kingdom.

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“They say, what are you going to do about the cost of living crisis? I can't afford to pay the weekly bills. What are you going to do?

“And that's why we're fighting this election on a positive campaign. I think there's only one reason the SNP have gone into this space and it's because they can't fight on that territory and that shows that they're the past and we're the future.”

Labour have been keen to draw a line between their UK leadership and the Scottish group, insisting that their candidate in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, Michael Shanks, opposes Keir Starmer on issues such as his support for the two-child benefit cap.

But Sarwar has recently performed public U-turns, on issues such as the devolution of employment law, after the UK party leadership stepped in to rule it out.

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Alba general secretary Chris McEleny said of Starmer's comments: “We have known for a long time in Scotland that the Scottish Labour Party are just a branch office that will do what it’s told when it’s told. However, it seems clear today that Anas Sarwar is viewed by Keir Starmer as a Labour puppet and London’s Voice in Scotland.

He went on: "Starmer might want to fob off the democratic reality that Scots have voted for an independence referendum in election after election. However, if the SNP agree with Alex Salmond’s plan for a Scotland United pro independence electoral pact, the General Slection won’t be about how many seats Labour will win off of the SNP but rather how many of the few remaining Unionist seats will survive.

"With that mandate we can enter straight into independence negotiations with the UK Government.”

A conference motion from the SNP’s leadership, First Minister Humza Yousaf and Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, says that their proposal is for “the most” seats – meaning more than any other party – to count as a mandate to open negotiations on independence.

This is a lower bar than a majority of seats – which will be 29 of Scotland’s 57 after boundary changes.

The motion will be debated at the SNP conference in October.

Previously, the proposal had been for a General Election to be treated as a “de facto referendum”, with a mandate for independence coming if 50%+1 of the votes go to Yes-supporting parties.

There have been calls from within the SNP, including its most senior MP, Pete Wishart, for votes and not seats to be counted in order to lend greater legitimacy to the independence strategy.