The mood of Monday’s meeting about the constitution at Chequers was apparently for English votes for English laws rather than for an English Parliament. David Cameron’s starting-point was to try to find ground that all those present could agree on – and EVEL commands a consensus, not least because Ed Miliband has no answer to why it shouldn’t happen, and Labour MPs are beginning to challenge him on the matter.
No decision was taken (it could scarcely be otherwise at an informal meeting), but the soft version of EVEL that I described on this site on Monday, and which was recommended in the Mckay Report, was felt by many present to be out of date. The sense was that Scottish devolution will require a more far-reaching solution – the hard version of EVEL perhaps, with English MPs having the final say alone on English legislation at all stages?
This could lead to red Ministers implementing laws made for England by a blue legislature – as early as next year, if Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister in May. So although the Chequers meeting was for EVEL, there was a recognition that it would be a constitutional beginning, not an end. “I do not ask to see./The distant scene; one step enough for me,” as Cardinal Newman once put it.
There are ways in which a Commons vote on EVEL could be engineered before legislation for Scotland appears in the New Year, or before any White Paper is published – despite Cameron’s assurance that progress for England and Scotland must take place “in tandem and at the same pace”. For example, the backbench business committee might be persuaded to stage a debate. A ten minute rule bill could happen. The Commons can’t be prevented from debating the issue.
This opens the possibility of a “Wharton Vote” on EVEL – in other words, one that would, like James Wharton’s private member’s bill on an EU referendum, seek to embarrass Labour, ward off UKIP, and put the Liberal Democrats on the spot. Or there could be a series of Wharton Bill-style debates in the Commons – to push EVEL back into the headlines. This would be a useful card in Cameron’s (and Lynton Crosby’s) campaigning hand as next May draws nearer.
Tory MPs from the north in particular are concerned about the economic advantages that Scotland could gain after further devolution, and those from Wales are worried about their country continuing to come off second-best. See Wharton and Guto Bebb’s recent pieces on this site. No support for regional assemblies was voiced. But there is backing from more devolution within England itself – perhaps to City regions and local enterprise partnerships.
At this stage, money looks to be a bigger short-term problem for Cameron than voting. The words “Barnett Formula” have become a shorthand for Scotland’s generous public spending settlement overall. It has been argued that the money paid out under Barnett would fall as Scotland gains more fiscal powers – in which case, England should surely gain the same ones. Pushing for Commons votes on EVEL won’t solve that conundrum.