Downing Street was briefing last night that David Cameron would move immediately to address “the English question” following a No vote in the Scottish referendum – and he did just that in his statement outside N0.10 a few minutes ago. The PM suggested that he would end the right of non-English MPs to vote on English laws that do not affect their constituents. He said:
I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.
So just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so, too, England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland should be able to vote on these issues. And all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland. I hope that this will take place on a cross-party basis, I’ve asked William Hague to draw up these plans. We will set up a cabinet commitee right away and proposals will also be ready to the same timetable. I hope the Labour Party and other parties will contribute.
The move is designed to respond to a genuine constitutional anomaly (one that will only intensify with further devolution to Scotland and Wales), but it is also intensely political. The Tories are keenly aware that denying Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs the right to vote on English-only legislation could leave future Labour governments in office but not in power, handing the Conservatives an effective veto. Significantly, Cameron suggested that the reforms would not only apply to areas long devolved to Holyrood such as health and education, but also to tax, welfare and spending. Were the changes to be applied in their purest form, a future Labour Chancellor could be left unable to pass his or her Budget.
For these reasons, among others, Labour has long opposed having “two classes of MPs” (although some would argue that there are already two classes). Ed Miliband has promised radical devolution to city authorities, transferring at least £30bn of funding downwards from Whitehall, but this does nothing to answer the West Lothian question (first posed by Labour MP Tam Dalyell). Whether and how to do so is the question he must now confront.