- What should happen. On Friday, ConservativeHome said that David Cameron can’t carry on as he has been doing on the constitution – not, at least, if he wants to make a success of reforming it and Conservative MPs to keep their patience with him. We urged a quick recall of the Commons towards the end of this week; that a longer-term constitutional convention be called, and voters be directly consulted as a part of it; that a team of senior Cabinet members debate and shape Govenment proposals; that the 1922 Committee chair and convene any Party meetings to discuss constitutional reform, and that the team that negotiates with the Scottish Government contain a senior Party elder. In short, we called for a big change in leadership style. There are plenty of Tory MPs thinking along the same lines, and not just the usual suspects. Some are Ministers – and Cabinet Ministers at that. As one backbencher put it to me, “Downing Street just can’t keep carrying on as though it were lastminute.com.”
- What is happening. There has been some response from Number 10 – or some change, at any rate. The floating of English votes for English laws is a bit of a start, though it falls a long way short of the devo-max for all parts of the United Kingdom that the ConservativeHome manifesto calls for. The whips have been phoning round backbenchers seeking their views, and some of the latter that feel this consultation is more assiduous than usual. (One who I spoke to says that he has been rung twice.) Senior Tory MPs have been invited to Chequers for a summit next week – including Peter Lilley, John Redwood, Bernard Jenkin and Dominic Grieve. This is a more serious business than the usual teas and dinners. There have been talks with Graham Brady, the 1922 Committee Chairman. I am picking up praise for Michael Gove: “He’s a breath of fresh air,” one backbencher told me, adding that the new Chief Whip seems to have grasped the urgency of Cameron repairing his fractured relationship with the Parliamentary Party.
- For Cameron, constitutional reform is part of his campaign grid. Number 10 is plainly in no rush to recast the whole relationship between England and Scotland – which would have knock-on effects on Wales, Northern Ireland, the Second Chamber, and the whole constitution. Draft legislation for Scotland will apparently be published in the New Year. There will thus be no time for a bill to pass through Parliament before the next election. In one sense, this is as it should be: frantic constitutional revision is unlikely to be good revision. However, the shift in Downing Street runs only so deep. That no constitutional convention has been announced is consistent with Cameron viewing reform first, last and always as an item in his general election grid, just as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg see it as an item in theirs. Number 10 clearly believes that it has the potential to be part of a winning package for them – that it opens an opportunity for Cameron, as we put it last week. The main options seem to be as follows:
- Go slow – and do nothing much before next May: This would present two possible tactical gains for Cameron. First, by going slow on devolution for England, he might be able to deprive supporters of an English Parliament, such as John Redwood, of the oxygen of publicity – if the media turned to other matters, such as the economy. Second, the anger of the SNP and independence campaigners at the go-slow would be targeted at their main opponent – Labour. Brown, Darling and Douglas Alexander would be lampooned for “creating the circumstances” for “Tory vow-breaking”. A voter backlash north of the border against Ed Miliband, and the loss of Labour Scottish seats to the SNP next May would suit Cameron fine. After all, he himself could scarcely have fewer constituencies to lose in Scotland. Finally, the timetable that has been set out sits very neatly with masterly inactivity.
- Go fast – and make a unilateral push on English votes for English laws. However, going slow would bring a big problem with it – namely, pressure for “Justice for England” from UKIP. Nigel Farage would be able to use the issue as a club to beat Cameron with. But the Prime Minister might be able to head off that pressure by a gambit that requires no legislation. One view within the Number 10 circle is that no new law is needed to introduce English votes for English laws, since all that is required is for the Commons to vote to change its standing orders to prevent MPs with non-English constituencies from voting on English business. Cameron could seek to push such a change through the Commons at the same time, say, as the publication of a White Paper on Scotland – arguing that such action honours his pledge to introduce change for England “in tandem and at the same pace” as change north of the border.
- What would the Liberal Democrats do? Perhaps their English MPs, fearing UKIP and the Tories, would support such a move. More likely, the Liberal Democrats would stick together and oppose it – mindful of the ten or so seats that they must defend next May in Scotland. The view of Danny Alexander could prove crucial. He and Nick Clegg, his fellow Quad member, may well argue that English votes for English laws should only be introduced as part of a fully federal constitution. This returns us to that general election grid. Sure, a Conservative Commons motion on English Votes for English Laws would bring debate on an English Parliament with it – and Number 10 doesn’t seem to want that. But it might serve as a defence against UKIP; would certainly put Labour – and perhaps the Liberal Democrats – on the spot in England, and could help to build pressure on Labour in Scotland. (The SNP would argue that Labour’s opposition to independence has led to “the Tories doing something for the English but nothing for Scots”.)
As a clever Tory MP pointed out to me, such a vote would be to constitutional reform what the Wharton Bill was to the EU referendum – a measure that helps to repair the relationship between Cameron and his Party, punishes a Labour weakness, fends off UKIP (or tries to) and plays a part in the rolling election campaign that is already under way.
I’m all for exposing Labour’s flaws, closing down a vulnerable flank to UKIP, showing up the Liberal Democrats, and firming up the Conservative position. But is it too much to ask that such a tactical wheeze should be part of a more serious whole? That Team Cameron should give as much thought to the stability of the constitution and the country as to getting its collective feet back under the Downing Street table next May? How inspiring it would be to see evidence that the main motive for these manoeuvres is a sense of the public good. None is available.