This is a quickly written squib so forgive me for the lack of full consideration in what follows.
The election is close. And in a close election the figures as they stand in the polls suggest that the best the Conservatives can hope for at the moment is a very narrow overall majority either alone of with the help of Unionist support from Northern Ireland.
Well, let’s assume that happens. The margin is 3. And wonder of wonders a Scottish Conservative MP is returned, or (if they’re heading for a narrow overall majority) perhaps more than one – let’s say 4.
Now after the Tories were wiped out in Scotland and after devolution was introduced the Conservative party introduced a general policy that they would not allow their Scottish MPs to vote on English issues. This has been largely adhered to.
A controversial English Education Bill is in Parliament. The vote is balanced. Will the Conservatives change their policy?
Or does this imply that one of the first pieces of legislation the Conservatives will have to pass is their proposed law (hinted at in 2005 and the Clarke review on constitutional issues) that English MPs for English laws Act – and if it is why has the issue not been raised in the election campaign so far? And what chance would such an Act have if the Conservatives were dependent on Unionist support? But of course polices announced in the Mail on Sunday in 2009 find themselves tweaked as we near decision time.
And on looking at the manifesto this evening I see that the policy has been tweaked,
"Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries." (p 84 – PDF Version)
This is not quite the policy as suggested by Cameron in the Mail on Sunday. It needs unpacked. Is this a veto for ENglish MPs on English legislation – meaning that a vote has 2 counts: that of the whole House; and then one of English MPs only? – and only where both are in favour will the legislation be passed. Or is it simply English MPs can only vote on English laws?
And in either case how will this be entrenched? Will it require legislation? And if so how do the Conservatives (who used to assure us with regularity that Parliament cannot bind its successors – relying on the (English) doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty) propose to bind successors (an issue which also applies in the context of the European referendum guarantee)? And if it does not require an Act of Parliament but only a change to the rules of the House of Commons how will this be entrenched? What is to stop a later Parliament reversing it?
Or is this part of a more radical constitutional plan? Many years ago David Cameron wrote a series of articles for The Guardian in which (in one fairly well argued piece – not yet discovered by the Daily Mail as they trawled for relics from Nick Clegg’s past) he argued in a throw away line at the end that the UK should have a written constitution. The proposal on a British Bill of Rights (however misguided in its failure to take account of the British role in the development of the European Convention on Human Rights, or failure to take account of UK obligations as members of the Council of Europe, or the inept omission to consider the implications for the devolution settlement – nailed in a fabulous post by Lallands Peat Worrier) is moving along this path too.
But back to the manifesto policy. The lack of clarity means that it is not clear what the Scottish Conservative MP does prior to the rule change (or is this an issue of such priority that despite the economic meltdown this is the first Act pushed through)? Does he or she stick to the principled policy of not voting on English issues? Or will a tight vote on Michael Gove’s education bill mean that principles can be disregarded?
And why did this issue not raise its head in an election campaign where the SNP advocate a balanced Parliament (and must necessarily to have any effective sway throw to one side their own policy of not voting on English issues), and where the parties are so close and in terms of seats afterwards in such a tight race every MP will count?
(The passage after the quote was edited in this morning at 9.30 having failed to save last night – it was written after the first two comments below)