The Conservatives want to reopen the devolution settlement

Update. I add a demolition of the Clarke scheme from the Unit I work with below the fold.

The Conservative veteran Ken Clarke has come up with an ingenious scheme for containing English resentment at the bad deal the British majority are getting out of devolution, as Tories see it anyway. This involves the lesser noticed part of Clarke’s constitutional task force report, the replacement of the Barnett formula for public spending in the devolved areas , including NI. Clarke grapples with the “West Lothian question”, the anomaly by which Scottish and NI MPs vote through measures on, say, English education that don’t apply in their own constituencies; and English MPs can’t vote on Scottish and NI education, because it’s devolved. The plan to limit English MPs to voting on amendments only is an ingenious compromise. I doubt, though, if it removes the possibility of a Labour government with a small majority being blocked by an English minority.

All party agreement would be needed for such a fundamental change and its hard to imagine Labour and the Lib Dems going for it. The DUP I’m sure would fight to keep their bargaining power in tight votes. The more likely but still imperfect solution is to reduce the number MPs from Scotland and NI, on the grounds that their Westminster MPs carry less responsibility. Imperfect representation for an asymetrical UK will continue to be the price of maintaining the Union.

Enoch Powell won an increase in the number of NI MPs from 12 to 17 in 1983 and a further one was added in 1997. A reversion to 12 is likely one day, but not some day soon. But stand by for a review of the Barnett formula as the price of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. It will affect Northern Ireland. The Clarke scheme is neatly dismissed by the head of the Constitution Unit of University College London thus:

Ken Clarke proposals neither new nor workable, says Constitution Unit

The proposals for a limited form of English votes on English laws which were outlined today by Kenneth Clarke MP are not new, says the Constitution Unit. Similar proposals were made by the Procedure Committee in 1999, the Norton Commission on Strengthening Parliament in 2000, and by Sir Malcolm Rifkind in 2007. All recommended excluding Scottish MPs from voting at one or more stages during the passage of ‘English’ bills through the House of Commons.

“From the little we have heard so far, Ken Clarke’s plan is no more feasible than previous proposals to limit the voting rights of Scottish MPs”, said the Unit’s director Prof Robert Hazell. “No one has yet satisfactorily defined how you identify an ‘English law’. The territorial extent of most bills varies in different parts of the bill. Either bills will have to be drafted in a completely different way; or you will have legislative hokey cokey, with MPs being allowed to vote on some amendments but not on others”.

The other doubt raised by the Unit is whether the Conservatives would try to implement English votes on English laws if they were in government. “I would be surprised if the Conservatives acted on this” said Robert Hazell. “The political and technical difficulties are formidable. And by definition, if the Conservatives are in government, they won’t need any form of English votes on English laws to get their legislation through.”

Prof Robert Hazell is editor of The English Question (Manchester Univ Press 2006), the product of an exhaustive five year examination of all possible solutions to the English Question.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London