LONDON Britain's most prominent business lobby group wants to reverse its decision to be an official campaigner against Scottish independence, after some of its members quit over its stance.
The Confederation of British Industry said in a statement it had applied to cancel its registration as a supporter of the anti-independence campaign ahead of September's referendum, after Reuters reported earlier that it had done so.
"Although the decision to register ... was taken in good faith ... it has inadvertently given the impression that the CBI is a political entity," its director general John Cridland said.
"We have always said that the referendum is a decision for the Scottish people and we're not telling people how to vote."
Anti-independence campaigners have had a small lead in support in recent polls, with one from ICM on April 20 reporting 39 percent support for independence, 42 percent against and 19 percent undecided.
The CBI, the leading group in Britain representing large employers, has consistently opposed independence, saying it would cause uncertainty over currency, taxation, financial regulation and European Union membership.
Cridland said the CBI would continue to raise questions, but that it no longer believed that official registration as a campaigner was needed for it to carry out its normal functions.
The CBI's registration was condemned by some of its members who said the group had not sought their sign-off over a decision that could jeopardise their neutrality in the increasingly bitter debate.
The trade body's stance has already damaged relations with the pro-independence administration in Edinburgh.
"This astonishing attempt at a U-turn by the CBI ... leaves them without a single shred of credibility, which has been left in tatters," a Scottish government source said.
The main pro-independence business group, Business for Scotland, said the CBI was now "a public laughing stock" and urged all the CBI's Scottish members to quit the group.
Several organisations - including the BBC and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen universities - have already resigned from or suspended their membership of the CBI because they did not wish to be linked to the anti-independence campaign.
Organisations or individuals must register as campaigners if they want to spend more than 10,000 pounds on campaigning during the official referendum period.
The Electoral Commission, which oversees the referendum, said it was too early to say whether the CBI's application to deregister would be successful.
The CBI said it would argue that its registration was void.
"The application should not have been made. It did not have approval under the CBI's normal corporate governance procedures and was not signed by an authorised signatory," it said.
The CBI says it speaks on behalf of 190,000 businesses across Britain, and that CBI members in Scotland employ around 500,000 people, about a quarter of the private-sector workforce.
(Reporting by David Milliken, Editing by William Schomberg and Angus MacSwan)