British politics, at a time when feverish election campaigning was due to dominate, is grappling with long-term constitutional questions. This odd turn of events stems from Scotland’s rejection of independence – and a pledge from the three main party leaders, led by Gordon Brown, to hand significantly greater powers to Scotland.
This promise, played out rather chaotically as part of a panicked plea for Scots to stay in the UK, elicited a furious reaction among many Tory backbenchers. They are calling for an English Parliament as a solution to the West Lothian Question – reminding the PM that “English votes for English laws” was part of the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto.
David Cameron reacted rapidly to these growing pressures when he came to deliver his speech in reaction to the Scottish referendum result on Friday morning. In a characteristically slick address – general Westminster wisdom is that he’s good at these things – he promised to deliver a plan for UK-wide constitutional reform “in tandem” with devo-max for Scotland.
This, as described by the Times’ Matthew Parris in his column yesterday, was a classic reaction to events from our “master escapologist” Prime Minister. His “essay crisis” style of leadership was clear in the last-minute announcement of a plan for a wholesale constitutional shake-up to be outlined and finalised by next February. It was also an address devised to please both his Barnett-bashing backbenchers and Scottish detractors. In short, it was impossible.
Now, the Guardian is reporting No 10’s clarification of Cameron’s pledge in the aftermath of Friday morning’s hasty promises. Downing Street sources seem to be rowing back on the insistence of the two devolution processes happening simultaneously. Here’s the key paragraph:
Government sources stressed that the two proposals – further devolution to Scotland and changing the status of Scottish MPs at Westminster – should be considered in parallel and at the same time. But the sources said that progress in one area would not be dependent on the other.
Could Cameron be on track to betraying his already dangerously disgruntled MPs? Chances are they’ll feel as cheated as Scottish No voters if the PM doesn’t make good on his promise. A tricky situation, with an election round the bend, even for the most deft escapologist.