How well William Hague deputised for David Cameron. In the one hopes unlikely event of a caretaker Prime Minister being needed after the referendum, Hague would be more than capable of taking on the role. It was clearly not his intention to remind us of this: but nor was he able to avoid doing so.
For here was no member of the Second Eleven, but a leader well able to express, in sombre tones relieved by gleams of humour, the feeling on both sides of the House: namely that it would be an appalling disaster, and a totally unnecessary one, if the Scottish National Party were to succeed in breaking up the United Kingdom.
Partisanship was laid aside in favour of a united message. “We want you to stay in the United Kingdom,” said Hague. “We want Scotland to stay,” said Harriet Harman, standing in for Ed Miliband.
Pete Wishart (SNP, Perth and North Perthshire) said that although he and Hague want different things, they should congratulate the Scottish people on the way they were taking the decision. Hague replied that it was “a gentle understatement that we want different things”, and added: “I don’t congratulate those who have failed to be straight with the people of Scotland…They are passionate about Scotland, but they’re not passionate about telling the truth to the people of Scotland.”
There was a chastened feeling to these exchanges: a sense that many parliamentarians have realised very late in the day that the referendum could go the wrong way, and now understand they should have done more, at an earlier stage, to avert the danger.
But from the Conservative side, two complaints were heard. John Redwood (Wokingham) demanded in an almost hysterical tone: “Who speaks for England?” Hague replied that having represented a Yorkshire seat for 25 years, and Yorkshiremen always wishing to speak for a larger area than Yorkshire, he was himself among those who speak for England as well as for the wider UK.
Christopher Chope (Christchurch) wanted to know when Government policy had changed from not offering devo-max to advocating it. Hague replied that the present situation was analogous to a general election campaign, with party leaders laying out their plans for what they would do in the future. Chope had brought out the point that these plans could have been presented some time ago. But did Disraeli, in 1867, inform his followers well in advance of the radical widening of the franchise which he was about to implement? Of course not, for that is not how constitutional change usually occurs.