The BBC reports this morning, based on a story in The Observer, that the Conservatives are likely to formally adopt a proposal, originally made by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, that only MPs representing English constituencies will be able to legislate on English matters:
"The proposal would allow MPs from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to continue to sit together in the Commons to vote on UK-wide matters such as taxation, foreign policy and defence. It would be up to the Commons speaker to decide which matters should be referred to the English Grand Committee, which would sit in the House of Commons chamber."
If the Tories go down this path it will become an explosive issue at the next General Election. The Tories would be effectively saying that Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, had no authority to vote on large parts of legislation affecting England.
Scottish Office minister David Cairns MP told The Observer that the proposal was "utterly unworkable":
"Taken to its logical extent it would create multiple categories of MPs. Where does it end? Do the Tories think only London MPs should vote on Crossrail, only countryside MPs vote on fox hunting, only coastal MPs vote on fishing? It is utterly impracticable. ‘Take the English smoking ban. This was proposed in clauses in a bill which applied to the whole of the UK. Would the Tories seriously take those clauses out into the grand committee for consideration?’"
The proposal is likely to be warmly greeted by Conservative members. A ConservativeHome.com poll in July 2006 found that 82% "favour English and Welsh MPs being given sole control of laws affecting England and Wales". Many will regard this commitment as only the first step, however, in putting the England-Scotland relationship back on track. 63% support complete elimination of the UK taxpayers’ subsidy of Scotland. A higher proportion would likely support its reduction.
On yesterday’s Platform, Murdo Fraser MSP recommended that the party proceeds cautiously in these matters but that new solutions were necessary:
"It is not for me as a Scot to say whether there should now be a wholly separate English Parliament, but I detect little serious enthusiasm for it. I suspect that most English voters would be happy with Westminster continuing to both as a UK legislature and as a de facto English Parliament, in the latter case with the exclusion of the Scottish, Northern Irish and (if appropriate) Welsh MPs, if a way could be found to make this work. The financial arrangements require to be looked at too."
Murdo warned not to fall into traps set by the SNP’s Alex Salmond. In, The Observer, Ruaridh Nicoll thinks that the Tories may be ignoring this warning:
"The truth is that Salmond is working out how to avoid Scotland’s voters. He is needling the English at every opportunity. He complained about Scotland receiving too little cash while ensuring English students will be the only ones who have to pay. He is bringing down class sizes and offering free school meals for all (a trial has just begun). Eventually, he figures, English Tories will turn against Scotland, and a split become inevitable. Our front-page report suggests this is already beginning to happen."