Anger at Major's SNP 'mayhem' claim
Sir John Major's prediction of "mayhem" if the General Election results in a Labour government propped up by Scottish nationalists provoked a furious response today.
Nicola Sturgeon branded his comments "an affront to democracy" and Ed Miliband accused Conservatives of "threatening the integrity of the United Kingdom".
The former prime minister's dramatic intervention came as Conservatives stepped up warnings over the potential outcome of the May 7 election, which opinion polls suggest will deliver the Scottish National Party as many as 50 seats and the balance of power in the House of Commons.
Sir John said Mr Miliband's only route to 10 Downing Street involved a pact - whether in coalition or informal and unacknowledged partnership - with the SNP, who he warned would subject the Labour leader to "a daily dose of political blackmail" pushing him "slowly but surely ... further to the left".
The SNP would use the position to demand policies favouring Scotland at the expense of the rest of Britain, driving a wedge between the nations of the UK with the hope of winning the 2016 election to the Scottish Parliament and paving the way for a second independence referendum, said the ex-PM.
"They will ask for the impossible and create merry hell if it is denied," he warned. "The nightmare of a broken United Kingdom has not gone away. The separation debate is not over. The SNP is determined to prise apart the United Kingdom."
Arguing that it would be "perverse" for the electorate to remove Conservatives from office as recovery was taking hold and the country needed stable government, Sir John used a speech in the key Tory target seat of Solihull to urge voters - even the "disaffected, disengaged (and) downright fed-up" - to give David Cameron another term as prime minister.
But Mr Miliband dismissed the warning, accusing Mr Cameron of "demeaning himself and his office" by talking up the SNP's prospects in the hope that it would cost Labour votes north of the border and allow him to "crawl back" into No 10.
The Labour leader insisted there would be no coalition with the SNP and denied that Ms Sturgeon's party would hold the whip hand on policy, telling BBC1's Breakfast: "A Labour government led by me, what happens in that Labour government will be decided by me, not by the SNP.
"I think David Cameron is playing fast and loose with the United Kingdom. This is somebody who has given up hope of winning a majority. He is trying to boost the SNP.
"I think David Cameron is now threatening the integrity of the UK with the games he is playing. And I think Conservatives are now ashamed of what he is doing."
Ms Sturgeon said Sir John's comments were "s illy, over the top" and "an affront to democracy".
"My message to John Major is Scotland's voice deserves to be heard in whatever way the Scottish people choose, and voting SNP means Scotland's voice will be heard more loudly and strongly at Westminster than it has ever been heard before," said the SNP leader.
And Labour's Alistair Darling, who led the No campaign against Scottish independence, said the Tories were "flirting with English nationalism" in a "desperate" way which could lead to another period of divisive wrangling over Scotland's position.
Any suggestion of a partnership with the SNP was "for the birds", he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, arguing that Mr Miliband would lead a minority administration rather than get into bed with Ms Sturgeon's party : "What are the nationalists going to do if they don't like something that the Labour government is going to do? Are they really going to vote us out and put in the Tories?"
There were signs of some unease among Tory ranks over the leadership's strategy, with former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth telling the Guardian that the party's tactic of targeting a Labour-SNP link-up was "short-term and dangerous" and could ultimately damage the Union.
But Sir John dismissed suggestions that he was stoking up division by demonising the SNP as "classic Labour spin".
And Mr Cameron brushed off criticisms of his approach, telling an event in Leeds: "All I am doing is pointing out what is as plain as the nose on your face - which is, right now, Labour is facing a wipe-out in Scotland."
Conservative Leader of the Commons William Hague told the BBC : "I think John Major is absolutely right to say what he is going to say in his speech today and to point to the danger of people who want to break up the United Kingdom in effect running the United Kingdom, if they hold the balance of power in Parliament.
"That's not talking up the Scottish National Party. Voters across the United Kingdom have to be aware of how serious this situation is, how serious this threat is, that it could actually happen."
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said Conservatives were "starting to argue amongst themselves because they are panicking".
"Everybody knows they are not going to win the election - in fact, everybody knows that no one is going to win the election outright - and they are starting to panic," he said during a visit to Cornwall. "They are thrashing around, using ever more intemperate language."
Mr Clegg's predecessor as Liberal Democrat leader Lord (Paddy) Ashdown said Tory victory on May 7 would deliver a repeat of the destabilisation of Sir John's own government in the 1990s at the hands of eurosceptics within Tory ranks whom he branded "the bastards".
Lord Ashdown said: "They now have not 16 but 60 extreme right-wingers in the Tory party, who will make Mr Cameron weak, just as they made Mr Major weak, who are in an unholy alliance with Ukip and with the Ulster Unionists. This would produce chaos and weak government."
Criticism from within the party was joined by Tory former cabinet minister Lord Tebbit, who said the "puzzling" focus on the SNP was not helping the "prime task" of securing a majority.
The peer, a long-time critic of Mr Cameron, told BBC2's Newsnight that it appeared to imply that Conservatives in Scotland " should vote tactically for Labour as the lesser of two evils".
"I think it's a huge scare tactic against Labour and whether the particular seat in the House of Commons is occupied by a Labour member or an SNP member perhaps it's not a great difference.
"Having bungled the Scottish referendum, it seems pointless to just irritate Scots by shouting at them from Westminster - the English are irritated into voting for Ukip, by being shouted at from Westminster - and the Scots are irritated similarly."
He said "the risk to the union comes from the SNP, not from anyone else".
The focus on the SNP is "not helping Mr Cameron's prime task, which is to elect Conservative members of Parliament".
He urged the Prime Minister - whom he compared unfavourably with "real men" of experience such as ex-premiers Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee - to concentrate the campaign on the issue of security.
"A hospital is a wonderful asset unless it's been bombed by an Isil lunatic, in which case it's useless," he told the programme.
"We are not devoting enough resource nor enough thought in a world that is more dangerous than it has been for very many years."