Polling data on support for English parliament
Brexit will dominate 2017, but Theresa May is right that the vote was not just about the issue of Europe: it was underpinned by a growing mistrust of the establishment. In response, she has set herself a colossal task – reshaping Britain’s place in the world and tackling the issues creating discontent at home.
The problem is that there has been a growing gap between her aims and the solutions offered. This is unsurprising given no majority in the Lords, a Commons majority of ten and no election mandate. This gap exists even before the Conservative Party becomes unmanageable as Brexit materialises, disappointing either soft or hard liners, and before a potentially overdue recession hits, as each decade since the 1970s has seen a downturn.
For all these reasons, the Prime Minister needs an election. But she needs an issue to help guarantee victory, and a failsafe to ensure that if we end up with a similar result to now, she is strengthened by her decision to call a vote. Fortunately, there is an issue that is both morally right and can be pressed into service – a referendum on a federal system for the UK, with English MPs in charge of English matters.
Brexit brings into relief the current constitutional mess
The Labour Party created an asymmetrical and unfair system. Areas that vote generally vote Labour (Scotland, Wales, London) were given preferential powers. This was in part due to local demand, but the corresponding issue of England was never dealt with because Labour’s preferred solution of a regional England was deeply unpopular with voters (as shown by the 2004 North East vote).
Brexit will exacerbate this, because it brings back powers in multiple areas (e.g. fisheries, agriculture) that will need to be shared within the constituent parts of the UK. The time for a solution to our constitutional mess is now – and the solution should be a federal UK with England having its own executive and legislature.
The Scottish parliament already controls huge numbers of policy areas; agriculture, forestry and fisheries, education, the environment, health, housing, planning, law and order, local government, culture, economic development, transport, some powers over income tax and borrowing powers, SDLT and miscellaneous other areas such as the misuse of drugs, as well as the administration of elections to the Scottish parliament.
Strong support for an English Parliament
There is clear support for an English parliament among English voters. By an overwhelming majority of 3:1 voters support English devolution, as shown by the table above. This also means that the executive for English matters (e.g. ministers for health, education, housing and planning etc.) would need to come from English MPs. Our system is not designed to split powers between the executive and the legislature, and trying to introduce this on top of other reforms will be impossible. By contrast, simply setting out that English matters and English ministers should be decided by English MPs, and come from English MPs, is simple.
The referendum would be able to be framed around the issue of fairness: why should the SNP end up deciding on English schools, roads and hospitals? The powers that Scotland has in this regard should be given to England and Wales, creating a federal system where international negotiations are carried out by a UK wide parliament and executive which deals with UK wide areas, with the remainder dealt with by the constituent parliaments. Crucially, this would not expand the number of politicians: we should be saying that existing English MPs would form the English parliament and executive. This would negate the only way that opponents could try to fight this proposal.
Running as the Conservative and Unionist party would provide an electoral boost
This change would enable the Conservatives to run outside England as the Unionist party. Much of the reason that the Tories appear weak is that their vote share has declined as non-English politics have fragmented – the Conservative Party won a majority of just 12 on 41 per cent of the vote in England in 2015, not that much lower than the 46 per cent it won there in the 1983 Thatcher 144 seat landslide. We need to adjust to this fragmentation of the vote.
By running this year as the Unionist party outside of England, the chances of winning seats outside of England would increase, particularly in Scotland, where Ruth Davidson is already the unofficial leader of unionism. In England, meanwhile, Corbyn would almost certainly come out against letting the English administer their own affairs – depressing the Labour vote as people would feel (rightly) this was just based on partisan feeling not principle and potentially lowering Labour turnout.
What could this mean after an election?
With a referendum passed at the same time as an election, there would almost certainly be a clear majority for the Conservatives in a new English parliament and executive. While the UK voted 52 per cent in favour of Leave, 400 of the 574 constituencies in England and Wales (or 70 per cent of seats) voted in favour of Leave. (The Tories have a 14 per cent or so lead in some national polls.)
By creating an English parliament and executive selected by that parliament, May removes the only risk to an election this year – that she ends up no stronger than at present. Even if the result is a rerun of 2015, this would give a Tory 100 strong majority, clearing the way for an English government that can undertake the reforms she wants.
Crucially, in such circumstances May would force Conservative MPs to stand on a pro-Brexit manifesto, forcing those like Anna Soubry to either leave or agree with whatever terms May decided upon. Moreover, this is the worst case scenario: the best case is that she will have a majority of some 50-100 MPs across the UK as a whole. In either case, May would have a real shot at achieving her goals, both in terms of Brexit and the domestic reforms she wants.