A coalition government in Scotland appeared less likely yesterday after the Liberal Democrats -- regarded as the most likely partner for both of the two biggest parties in the Scottish parliament -- seemed to rule themselves out of joining a government.
The party's leader in Scotland said late on Sunday that he would not work with the Scottish National Party (SNP), the largest bloc in Scotland's parliament after last week's election, so long as it insisted on holding a referendum on independence.
Earlier on Sunday, a senior Lib Dem lawmaker said his party would not work with Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party, which had ruled Scotland in a coalition with the Lib Dems.
The SNP won 47 seats in the election which, while not enough to rule alone, means they could secure a one-seat majority in the 129-member Scottish Parliament if they teamed up with the Liberal Democrats, who won 16 seats, and the Greens, on two.
Labour won 46 seats and the Conservatives won 17 in the assembly, which has powers over a wide variety of policy areas, including health and education.
After a meeting with SNP leader Alex Salmond, Scottish Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen said: "I made it clear to him that unless and until the SNP removes the fundamental barrier of a referendum during the next four years, there can be no coalition."
Lawmaker Tavish Scott, who directed the party's election campaign, was earlier asked on BBC television whether he was ruling out a coalition with Labour and responded: "Yes."
Labour insisted on Sunday that the possibility of it forming a government had not been ruled out, with a party spokesman saying it was not clear whether Scott was speaking for the Liberal Democrats, or giving his personal opinion.
Scottish Labour leader and the current first minister of Scotland Jack McConnell said he "stands ready" to form a government if the SNP's attempt failed.
The nationalists won a landmark victory in Thursday's elections, beating Labour into second place, the first time Britain's ruling party had failed to win most seats in Scotland -- one of its traditional heartlands -- since 1955.
If no agreement on forming a new Scottish government is struck by May 30, a new election will have to be held.
If the SNP forms the next Scottish government, it may create a headache for British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, if, as expected, he takes over from Blair as prime minister within a few months.
Brown, a unionist Scot, could face an awkward cohabitation as he has vowed not to work with a Scottish leader who wants to end the 300-year-old union with England and Wales.
Salmond has nevertheless stressed his willingness to cooperate with Brown.
But if scorned, he would be a dangerous enemy for Brown, the Observer newspaper said.
Previously, tensions between Edinburgh and London "simmered behind the closed doors of a Labour Party safe house. Now they will be played out in public," the weekly said.
"Just at the moment when Mr Brown needs to present himself as a statesman for all of Britain, he could find himself sucked into an unseemly partisan brawl of scant relevance" to England.