The timing, wording and conditions of today’s referendum, with its lack of a turnout threshold and inclusion of 16 year old voters, will have been agreed by the Quad and, presumably, by David Cameron’s leadership circle.
The sweeping “vow” made by Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg during the final days of the campaign – to give Scotland more devolution and the Barnett money will have been cobbled together on much the same basis.
In both cases, there was no discussion in Cabinet – let alone consultation with other Ministers, the 1922 Committee or Tory backbenchers more widely.
The sense today among Conservative MPs may be that Scotland’s No vote proves that Downing Street made the right calls – that the gamble of the “vow”, with its pledged retention of Barnett, was never meant all that seriously and has paid off handsomely.
However, they are far more likely to believe that Number 10’s exam crisis style of leadership has once again been found wanting – but, this time, on a matter so serious that it cannot be allowed to continue.
Very simply, many Conservative MPs will believe that the Prime Minister made a pledge to Scotland that may not have been necessary, given the margin of yesterday’s No vote, and which certainly wasn’t thought through.
As today dawns, the Blair and Brown devolution settlement is on life support – and the entire constitution with it. Brown is arguably a hero of the hour, but he is certainly a villain of the piece. His devolution plan was meant to kill the SNP with kindness. It failed: they govern Scotland. It was meant to quell the appetite of the Scots for independence. It failed, too: over two out of five of them voted yesterday to leave the Union, the future of which is still far from secure. The English, and the other peoples of the rest of the United Kingdom, were left to like or lump the consequences. The Prime Minister must now lead in righting these injustices.
To do so, he will need to break from the Blair/Brown legacy – not just in substance of policy but in style of government. This will be hard for him. In one sense, Cameron and George Osborne are Blair and Brown’s heirs. The lesson they took from growing up as special advisers during the New Labour era was to follow its playbook – by cutting the Cabinet, most MPs and the wider Party out of real decision-making, for example. This tendency has been exacerbated by Coalition and the Quad. It must be conceded that although it has done more harm than good, there is a rationale for it. Tight leadership is indispensable to successful government. Margaret Thatcher helped to prove the point.
None the less, what sometimes works when, say, driving through the academies programme or policing change or welfare reform doesn’t do so when it comes to the constitution. This is because the latter touches every citizen, since it provides the framework within which democratic politics in Britain is set. The stakes are simply too high for constitutional reform to be left to a governing elite – however senior they may be. Cameron and Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are very senior indeed. But they had no authority to make a binding “vow” to Scotland – or anywhere else – regardless of what Parliament or their parties may think.
Essentially, the “vow” represented government as usual from the Prime Minister. But today’s result, the demand for change in Scotland, and the response from the Parliamentary Party – which runs from concern through exasperation to anger – shows that government as usual simply won’t do.
Cameron’s announcement this morning looks suspiciously like an attempt to keep it going – and head off both Scotland’s voters and his troubled Party at the same time. That reform for England and Scotland will apparently proceed in step is welcome. But though English votes for English laws (which was in the last Conservative manifesto, and which has come to nothing to date) would be a bit of a start, it falls very short of the devo-max which all of the UK now needs. Cameron’s inclination may well be to go very slow on the whole business, thereby calming the English nationalist sentiment on his own backbenches…and leaving Labour to take the heat in Scotland from a raging Alex Salmond. That a bill will be published but not necessarily enacted before the election may be a sign of such intent.
This course is as superficially attractive as it is ultimately unsustainable. The terrible lesson of the years since 1997 is that constitutional fudge puts the Union at risk, and is deeply unfair to England in any event. It’s in everyone’s interest for Cameron to move deliberately and thoughtfully forward with a programme of radical constitutional reform: this moment presents an opportunity for him, as I argued earlier this week. But a new model of leadership will be needed if such a plan is to work. In such a great national conversation, there can be no more by-passing of the Cabinet, the 1922 Committee, Tory MPs, the voluntary party – or, indeed, voters themselves, whose disillusion with “Westminster” was unmissable during Scotland’s campaign. The following should happen.
- Parliament should be recalled to discuss ways forward for devo-max for all the UK in the light of today’s result. This could be done without disrupting the Party Conference season were the recall to take place towards the end of next week.
- When it comes to constitutional reform after the season concludes, there should be no leadership support rallies thinly disguised as Parliamentary Party meetings and called by Number 10, at which MPs are simply given their marching orders by Lynton Crosby amidst pre-planned loyalist expressions of support. These meetings should be convened and chaired by the 1922 Committee.
- Nick Clegg cannot lead for the Government on a constitutional reform package of this size, since he is not a member of its largest party. Obviously, the Prime Minister will play a major part in discussions with the Scottish Government and the administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland. As matters stand, Sam Gyimah has Ministerial responsibility for constitutional change. So does our columnist Greg Clark, who Gymah reports to – as of course does Clegg, who is senior to Clark. None of these Ministers are of sufficient weight to help lead negotiations with Salmond, though they should certainly be part of any team. A heavyweight figure is needed. The suggestion in some senior quarters is Sir John Major.
- Some Conservative MPs want to see a constitutional convention of elected representatives from all parts of the United Kingdom. But consultation cannot be left only to Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – given the rock-bottom status of the political class. However, voter consultation should not be confused with a constitutional convention – dominated, as it would doubtless be, by the quangocracy, Official Britain and the Westminster Village. Britain deserves better than a new constitution shaped by the Suzie Leather class. How voters themselves could be consulted, how direct democracy might help to do it – there will be no shortage of proposals. Some sort of national consultation must be drawn from them.
- There should be full Cabinet and Party discussions of any proposals. The Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Commons Leader and Chief Whip and Party Chairman should meet regularly as a team – together with the other former Party leader who is a Cabinet member, Iain Duncan Smith. On constitutional matters, the old model of leadership isn’t working well. It’s time for a new one.
Updated at 7.30pm