How will the Tories play their English card?

Andrew Rawnsley on the nightmare scenario that could emerge for Gordon Brown in the coming months:

The stakes for him are enormous. The Tories narrowly won the popular
vote in England at the last general election. If Labour loses Scotland
next month, David Cameron will be able to hit Gordon Brown with a
double whammy. The Tory leader can portray Gordon Brown as a Prime
Minister without a mandate from either England or his native land.
There’s a word with a clear meaning on both sides of the border for how
Gordon Brown will feel. That word begins with an f. (Observer)

There are two assumptions behind this scenario. That the SNP will win the Holyrood election, and that Brown will win the Labour leadership. Given the SNP’s consistent poll lead and the hype around a cabinet-level challenge to Brown, it’s beginning to look questionable which is the shakier premise. Nevertheless, I expect both to be realised, which means the Tories will get the opportunity to unleash Rawnsley’s double whammy. Will they take it?

In order to do so, they will have to come up with ther own answer to the West Lothian Question. Since abolition of the Scottish Parliament is not an option, that means moving further down the road towards some form of English nationalism.

This would represent a wrenching shift from the Tories’ historic unionist stance, but there are already indications that change is underway. Party Chairman Francis Maude is reportedly considering a plan to hive off the Scottish Conservatives.

Mr Maude’s officials have been secretly drawing up the outline of a
‘velvet divorce’ with the Scottish Conservatives, which would give the
Scottish Tories a new name, a distinct identity, and make the
Conservatives officially as well as in practice a party exclusively
devoted to seeking power in England and Wales. However benignly it was
presented, such a split would, in effect, mean the final Tory retreat
from Scotland, a historic fissure in British Conservatism, and the
death of a party defined in many minds by its One Nation Unionism.

But the harder one examines the situation, the clearer it is that there is little left to salvage and little face left to save. (Spectator)

According to Fraser Nelson, this plan is being kept under waps during the Scottish elections. Gareth at the Campaign for an English Parliament speculates that the same is true for the Tories’ constitutional plans.

My personal view is that the Democracy Task Force is stalling –
delaying the publication of its EVoEM [English votes on English Matters] or English Grand Committee
recommendations – to prevent Gordon Brown being able to make an
informed decision in reaction to Conservative policy prior to releasing
his leadership manifesto. If the Tories did release plans for some form
of English Votes parliament then Brown will counter with his own plans
for the UK parliament to be elected under proportional representation. (CEP Blog)

David Cameron’s article on the subject today provides some support for this interpretation:

We cannot ignore the asymmetrical nature of the situation in which
Scottish MPs may vote on legislation that affects England, but neither
they nor English MPs can vote on subjects that have been devolved to
the Scottish Parliament. The answer is not a separate English
parliament, with more politicians spending more taxpayers’ money.
Instead, we need a balanced approach that ensures that MPs for English
constituencies have the final say on issues that only affect England.
That is why I have asked Kenneth Clarke’s democracy task force to look
at the right specific solutions. (Telegraph)

The alternatives to an English Parliament are flawed, however. English votes on English Matters could leave a Government with a majority on British issues but not English issues, or vice-versa, and would not address one of the core issues, the right of ministers from Scottish constituencies to make executive decisions that apply only to England.

If Labour remains stuck in a cul-de-sac of Brownian Britishness, and the Tories come down in favour of an unworkable alternative, that could leave only one major party with a coherent answer to the West Lothian question – the SNP.



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