Tories want to ram home Evel – whatever the other parties think
The Conservative approach to English votes for English laws (Evel) isn't about finding the answer to a difficult question any more. It's about winning the general election.
The clue was staring us in the face even before William Hague emerged.'A FAIR UNITED KINGDOM', the Tory slogan on the backdrop read. This was a speech about an issue of fundamental constitutional importance taking place in election mode.
Hague's big idea is to give the English an effective veto over issues that don't affect the other three nations.
He'll try, halfheartedly, to get it sorted before the end of the parliament. But we know that won't happen because the Liberal Democrats have already made clear they will block a vote on it from happening outright.
"If this is not possible, or the other parties vote it down, it will be a pledge in our manifesto and we will put it to the British people at the election and seek a mandate for it," Hague said.
This is extraordinary language. It puts what should have been an issue of cross-party consensus on a fundamentally partisan footing. There is no need for the Tories to pretend any more: they are out for themselves, and hope enough people will vote for them to fix the system in their favour for good.
It is completely at odds with the constitutional convention that every other mainstream party is calling for.
And it is even more out of place given how slim any Conservative majority is likely to be.
— Alex Stevenson (@Alex__Stevenson) February 3, 2015
Previous devolutionary steps have taken place after mandates, but this is on another level altogether. It would not be appropriate. A convention, by contrast, would let representatives of society outside Westminster have a say.
"It's the only way to answer these difficult questions and come to a settlement that commands legitimacy and respect," deputy chief executive Darren Hughes said.
"It's time to put an end to these back-room deals and unilateral announcements, whether it's the Conservatives in England or Labour in Scotland. Let's give citizens a chance to decide where power should lie in the UK."
A divided Tory party
There are plenty of votes in Evel, though, and the strong suspicion must be that the Conservatives are more interested in its electoral potential than in actually finding the right solution.
This explains why Hague has stood up to announce the party's position, despite not actually having succeeded in uniting Conservative MPs behind a single proposal.
The leader of the House, at the end of a long career in British politics, hasn't convinced enough Tory backbenchers that letting the whole of the Commons have a say on English-only matters is the right way forward.
Many Conservatives feel this just doesn't provide a satisfactory answer to the West Lothian Question, which sees Scottish MPs vote on English matters but English MPs prevented from having a say on issues affecting Scotland.
According to one source the 1922 committee, debating the issue last month, gave Hague a tough ride. A majority might even have voted against him if it had been put to a vote: Bernard Jenkin, Graham Stuart, John Redwood, Bill Cash and Stewart Jackson are only the most vocal opponents. Feelings, it is clear, are running deep.
Redwood, for example, says the blanket English-votes-on-any-English-matter approach is the "simpler way, and the fair way". Hague's proposal "does not keep the promise" he believes was made to voters after the referendum result.
This just goes to show how tricky the issue has been for Hague, who had wanted to secure consensus within his own party much sooner. It had been hoped agreement could be reached by the publication of the command paper just before Christmas, but this proved impossible. Delay proved preferable to disagreement, even if the process was obviously not proceeding, as David Cameron had promised after the independence referendum, "in tandem" with Scottish devolution.
Good in theory, bad in process
Other backbenchers I've spoken to, though, are delighted with this announcement. Andrew Tyrie, who has been campaigning on it entirely separately to his work as chair of the Treasury select committee, has been pleased with the government's approach ever since David Cameron hinted he would take this route in a recent appearance before MPs. He says the settlement Hague is pursuing is one of "maximising the negotiation" that takes place.
In Tyrie's view, the threat of a veto vote will force any government that holds a majority in England but not in the entire Commons to pursue agreement behind closed doors. This is not the time to moan about a lack of transparency, it's just allowing politics to happen in its most efficient form. By the time a clash reaches the high stakes of a showdown, the negotiation has probably already failed.
That's why a soft-hands approach is desirable. It will, Tyrie says, be the most "constructive way" to give the English a say while "buttressing the union". He has even written to every single Conservative MP to make this point.
This is important, because how English PMs handle Scotland now will affect the nationalists' future fortunes. Last month Cameron played straight into Nicola Sturgeon's hands by threatening, rather oafishly, to somehow prevent the SNP's MPs voting on English-only matters. At least on Evel he is going along with William Hague's nuanced approach and will help strengthen the links between Scotland and the rest of Britain, not weaken them.
— Carol Monaghan (@Carol4GlaNW) January 23, 2015
That view is reflected by John Baron – not a politician prepared to quash his principles in favour of party unity – who has written a comment piece for Politics.co.uk today arguing that a balance has to be struck between getting a fairer deal for the English and trying to ensure the Union is not further imperilled.
"We should remember asymmetry has traditionally been the price England pays to ensure Scotland stays in the Union," he points out. "During the 19th century and early 20th century we decided not to pay that price when it came to Ireland – and the Union suffered as a result."
Hague's problems with Tory rebels are a concern, but this is only the start of a long struggle that he will not be around to see to completion.
Perhaps he will not mind too much. Creating dividing lines out of Evel suits the Tory cause down to the ground. It gives voters another reason to back the Conservatives. And that is something Hague has always been keen on.