English votes for English laws: Tories throw Labour a curveball
News of Labour support for a grand committee of English-only MPs has been swiftly undercut by a new Tory idea which sets the dividing lines for the 2015 general election.
Finally, after much waiting, we finally know exactly how Labour and the Conservatives are disagreeing on English votes for English laws. And it's undoubtedly the Tories who have the upper hand.
After two months of internalised head-scratching, and public moaning, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan and shadow local government secretary Hilary Benn finally put forward their proposal early this morning. They announced Labour's support for the 'McKay option' – a grand committee of 80-odd MPs which would scrutinise and amend the detail of all bills that only apply to England, or to England and Wales.
Backing a grand committee may seem like a concession, and might even look like a strategic mistake for a party determined to preserve the influence of its Scottish MPs. But now the game has moved on. For much of Friday it looked like the opposition might just have made a rather smart concession.
The big development has been the growing, vocal support of Conservative backbenchers, for a solution in which English MPs get a 'veto vote' after all amending phases are completed. This option could not simply be overridden: if defeated, the legislation would have to go back several steps, probably derailing it entirely. It would force the English voice to be heard loud and clear throughout the entire process, in order to minimise the risk to nervy whips of a potential defeat. It is extremely attractive for the Tories.
Labour is offering a weaker alternative. A grand committee is actually the lightest option available to a party which has tried, until now, to avoid facing up to the imperative that only English MPs should vote on English laws. Importantly, any changes such a committee would vote through could be voted down by the Commons in its entirety before the final vote on legislation.
That is the weakness which the Tories, revealing their new option this evening, are keen to exploit. Next week the most interesting option to appear in their command paper will be a mash-up of two previously considered ideas. They're embracing a grand committee, but with the twist that any additional amendments will face a 'veto vote' of English-only MPs.
It sounds close to Labour's idea, but isn't really at all: in a scenario where a Labour government with a small majority relies on Scottish MPs to get its business through the Commons, the Tory proposal would be crippling for a Labour prime minister.
Still, if William Hague gets his way and secures a vote on the issue in this parliament – far from guaranteed if the Lib Dems scupper it – there is a small chance enough Labour MPs could be persuaded to rebel. It would only take seven or eight, the Conservatives believe.
Might there be any chance of a last-minute deal? Absolutely not. The Lib Dems and Tories have fallen out over the make-up of the committee. They want its membership to be based on vote-share, as the devolved institutions are, rather than in line with the Commons' composition as the Tories insist. That's why a vote is unlikely: if the coalition's junior party doesn't approve the Tory plans, there wouldn't be a division in government time. A vote in backbench time amending the Commons' standing orders is possible, but hasn't ever actually happened before.
So all three parties are in disagreement. It is a deadlock designed with politicking in mind. Parties always eye changes to the rules of the game through a haze of partisanship and this is no exception. Instead of trying to work out what's best for the country and our political system in the long-run, the Conservatives, Labour and the Libearl Democrats are all guilty of plotting their responses based on what will help them most at election time.
The one way this deadlock could be broken is by getting citizens involved through a constitutional convention. That is what 15,000 signatories called for in a petition which was handed into Downing Street yesterday. And such a development – which would be a historic moment for Britain – is surprisingly close: all the main parties think it's a good idea to have one apart from the Tories.
There is a small possibility that next week's command paper could confirm for the first time that the Conservatives – and thus all the main parties – are prepared to accept one is needed.
But Politics.co.uk understands the Conservatives are refusing to accept a constitutional convention to decide these issues. They'll probably agree to one, but only after the biggest shakeup of our constitution in recent times. Not before. The Tories have come up with a clever new way of dividing the parties that, in practical terms, seems sensible and fair. But it is being achieved through the wrong means. Doing it in this way only helps Conservative interests, not those of the country.