Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

Exposed: The Scottish independence myth no party leader wants you to hear

Scottish nationalists spooked Westminster's party leaders into giving away more powers to Scotland than they needed to during last year's referendum, new research has found. It leaves no-one emerging from the palaver over the Vow with much credit.

Shortly after the 'No' victory, polling by Lord Ashcroft indicated that the reasons people voted against independence were primarily those that had dominated the campaign long before September: the health of the Scottish economy, staying in the EU, keeping the pound.

The referendum threat was seen off because people voted with their heads, not their hearts. But somehow that argument has become unacceptable to the four party leaders who had taken Scotland to the brink of independence. And, until today, the truth has proved rather elusive.

The defeated Alex Salmond was first and foremost among them. He blamed the Vow – the pledge obtained by the Daily Record from the three party leaders to hand more powers to Scotland in the event of a 'No' vote – for preventing his side from getting over the line. It made sense for him to shrug his shoulders over a convenient excuse for failure, because it distracted attention from the fact he'd been defeated on the substantive issues. And blaming the 'Vow' had the useful side-effect of drawing voters' attention to the fact the nationalists hadn't gone away empty-handed.

Yet Salmond's central claim was nonsense. Today's findings from the Centre of Constitutional Research's Scottish referendum study confirm that to be the case. Just 3.4% of No voters opposed independence because of the offer for more powers, it's established. That compares rather unfavourably to the  29.5% who cited 'feeling British / believe in Union', the 27.8% who said there were 'too many unanswered questions' and the 26.3% who thought 'independence would make Scotland worse off'.

Salmond's misleading narrative of defeat isn't meaningless. It's not taking place in a vacuum. It matters because the momentum created by last year's campaign means the possibility of independence later in this century can't be discounted.

But Westminster's leaders haven't bothered to really combat Salmond's claims. And there's a reason for that. They're embarrassed by the Vow because it was completely unnecessary. Actually, it's worse than that. Their Vow was counter-productive.

Today's findings show that among Yes voters the Vow had a galvanizing effect. The top reason given by independence supporters, from 41.3% of them in fact, was that 'Westminster leaders misled Scots over more powers'. Ouch.

Who comes out looking worse? The only answer has to be David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. They got so worked up about the possibility that they might lose that they offered Scotland powers that have subsequently triggered a slow-burning constitutional crisis. The debate over English votes for English laws will return after the general election regardless of which of them ends up in No 10. Nice one, guys.

In a sense this data doesn't matter for the nationalists because it reinforces their broader suggestion that pressuring London gets results. That's the argument Salmond should be making now. He should be telling his party's supporters that the SNP created such a wave of momentum that the debate over independence remains important.

Which is exactly why we should be paying so much attention to today's research findings. The battle for the referendum may have been lost, but the war for independence is far from over.

'Hard-hearted Hannah' triggers Commons sexism row

Tempers were running high in the Commons this afternoon over a sexism row - which got so heated Speaker John Bercow allowed the phrase "lynch the bitch" to pass without question.

The row, between employment minister Esther McVey and Labour veteran Barry Sheerman, came in a stormy Department for Work and Pensions questions. It was clear from the start that Sheerman was not in a particularly good mood.

This may have been why he declared, in his question, that McVey was a "hard-hearted Hannah". The government benches weren't impressed by that, making clear their view that he had uttered a "sexist remark".

So Sheerman, unwilling to let the matter lie, raised it in a point of order at the end of the session.

"I have, I think, become known to be a long term champion of equality of women in our society and at work," he began.

"And in recent questions just a few moments ago I did refer to the member for Wirral west as 'hard-hearted Hannah'. I think she thinks it was a sexist remark. It wasn't meant as that. It's actually a famous song sung by Ella Fitzgerald."

Sheerman's initial comments were uttered in rather muted tones, inviting the possibility that he was gearing up for an apology. He most certainly was not. As the heckling from the government benches increased, his volume did too: "But she has a reputation for being a very hard champion of the welfare reforms this government has introduced," he continued. "And I believe it was fair comment and unfair to call me a sexist!"

This, in the words of one heckler, was a rather "shabby" intervention. But Speaker John Bercow didn't seem too worried for McVey, who he said was an "extremely robust character". He acquiesced as she made clear she wanted to respond, however.

"The reason I would like this on the record," she said, is that "it's not the first time the opposition benches have been like this to me". McVey said that John McDonnell, the left-wing Labour MP, "actually came to my constituency" and "asked for people to 'lynch the bitch'."

The phrase 'lynch the bitch' wouldn't usually be accepted as language befitting the House of Commons, but on this occasion the Speaker seems to have let it slide - perhaps because McVey made clear beforehand that McDonnell had most definitely been using unparliamentary language himself. She concluded, rather acidly: "Hence the opposition have form."

The political temperature is running higher and higher in the Commons as the election campaign approaches, leaving the Speaker and his team with the unenviable task of trying to keep things civil. "I understand there are strong feelings," Bercow said. "Let's try to preserve the courtesies as best as we can in the days and the weeks ahead."

McDonnell's attack, though, has obviously hit a sore spot. His remarks at a Labour comedy event last autumn were reported by the Mail as having taken place at a "sick alternative poppy day 'comedy' night".

McDonnell was quoted as having joked that activists campaigning in her Wirral West seat were arguing 'Why we are sacking her? Why aren't we lynching the bitch?" He said he regarded the critical story from the Mail as a "badge of honour". Conservatives quickly responded with outrage. And now McVey has been quick to take offence again - leaving Sheerman somewhat bewildered.

Even the merest suspicion of any kind of sexism in the Commons has been enough to prompt complaints ever since David Cameron attracted criticism for telling Labour frontbencher Angela Eagle to "calm down, dear". But gender rights may have been playing on McVey's mind in any case. Yesterday was international women's day.

Letting MPs decide who governs? They're not going to like that

This parliament has had 48 months since first gathering in mid-May 2010 to sort out the arrangements for the next coalition. So why is it that the MP tasked with overseeing our constitutional arrangements is now demanding a change of plan?

Graham Allen, chair of the political and constitutional reform committee, hasn't been particularly happy with the debate about what exactly happens when the voters return a hung parliament. His team of MPs united to renew their criticisms of the Cabinet manual 'rule-book' earlier this year, warning much more needs to be done to boost public awareness - and get clearer rules, too. Now he has emailed out fresh concerns.

"If the result of the May 7th general election is not clear cut, the days immediately after it should not be characterised by a private fix by the party leaders, where newly elected members of parliament and their parties are bypassed," Allen says. This is exactly what happened in 2010, of course, when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was formed before parliament was recalled. Allen wants an alternative approach this time round.

"The royal proclamation can be issued as early as March 30th," he continues. "If it repeats the precedent of 2010 it would not convene MPs in parliament until May 19th. This would be 12 days after the election, by which time deals will have been done, manifestos compromised, and patronage promised."

The party leaders want to preserve this 12-day period for manoeuvring and negotiation; putting MPs in the position of voting on a new government would create a pressured situation in which backbenchers would be empowered at the expense of the leaders. It is unthinkable. But Allen believes it might just work.

So he's calling for parliament to be summoned to meet on Saturday May 9th, just two days after polling day. This would "debate and confirm any proposed arrangements for the composition and programme of the new government", he suggests.

The Saturday after the election on May 10th was a day of uncertainty and excitement. Behind closed doors frenzied talks were taking place, but it would take another three days before an agreement was reached. And that was in a scenario where there was, arithmetically speaking, only one feasible option for a stable coalition. In 2015, it might take much longer.

But Allen insists: "Deferring proper democratic scrutiny of any coalition deal-making particularly in the Queen's name should be avoided. Once parliament is dissolved, it is Her Majesty who issues a proclamation summoning the first meeting of the new parliament. This matter has to be resolved now before the dissolution since once the proclamation of the date of summoning the new parliament has been issued, it appears that the date of parliament's first meeting cannot be brought forward."

With a hung parliament now viewed as the most likely outcome of the election, Allen's comments aren't just dry theory any more. But with 47 months of this parliament past and one to go, the debate about what constitutes the rules of the game really should have been settled by now.

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