William Hague warned on Monday that the Tories were prepared to take the fight to Labour at next year’s general election on restricting the voting rights of Scottish MPs if no agreement was reached by January on a new UK constitutional settlement.
The leader of the House of Commons called on Labour to clarify its thinking by the time of the election in May, as an opinion poll showed that nearly two-thirds of voters believe Scottish MPs should be banned from voting on English-only matters at Westminster.
Hague was speaking after David Cameron hosted a meeting of Tory MPs at Chequers to discuss how to implement his pledge, delivered in Downing Street in the early hours of Friday morning after the result of the Scottish referendum, to answer the so-called West Lothian question. This addresses the anomaly whereby Scottish MPs can vote on matters relating to England at Westminster, while English MPs have no say over devolved matters in Scotland such as education and health.
Cameron made an effort to reach out to about 20 MPs, many of whom have been critical of his premiership, by laying on a reception at his official country residence, Chequers. A warm buffet lunch was served for the ministers, who included the senior Eurosceptic backbencher Bernard Jenkin and the sacked attorney general Dominic Grieve. The meal was followed by a meeting that lasted nearly two hours in the upstairs boardroom, in which every MP was allowed to speak and Hague acted as note-taker.
Michael Gove, the Scottish-born Tory chief whip who has spoken strongly of the need to restrict the voting rights of Scottish MPs, attended the talks and hosted one of four tables during lunch.
The Conservative party received a boost when a ComRes/ITV News poll revealed that 65% of voters wanted to block Scottish MPs from voting on English-only matters. Only 15% disagreed with the proposal; 20% of those asked said they did not have an opinion. ComRes polled 2,048 adults across the UK.
The poll came after Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, leaders of the opposing sides in the referendum, warned at the weekend that the prime minister was reneging on his pledge to devolve further powers on tax and welfare to Holyrood. They seized on Cameron’s remarks on Friday morning that addressing the rights of MPs from England, Wales and Northern Ireland “must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland”.
Hague insisted that the two processes – devolving further powers to the Holyrood under a committee chaired by the crossbench peer Lord Smith of Kelvin, and examining how to restrict the voting rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster on a cabinet committee chaired by Hague – should take place in parallel. But he said that the processes were not conditional on the other, which means that powers will be devolved to the Scottish parliament regardless of the negotiations on the status of Scottish MPs.
But Hague warned that Labour would pay a price if it did not agree to the changes by May. He said: “If other parties make it impossible to deal with this issue in tandem, then it will be an issue at the general election in May and the people of the country will decide. It is then very important for all political parties to decide where they stand on this, including the Labour party meeting in Manchester this week.”
The leader of the Commons directed his remarks at Labour. But Danny Alexander, the most senior Liberal Democrat minister on the cabinet committee, which will hold its first meeting , said he wanted to secure Labour’s approval for the plans.
Tory MPs at the Chequers meeting described it as good-natured. There was consensus that the issue, known as English votes for English laws, needed to be addressed. But there were differences.
Some MPs accepted the proposal by Sir William McKay, former clerk of the House of Commons, who has proposed a “double majority” voting system at Westminster. In a report commissioned by the government before the referendum, McKay said English MPs should sit on the committee stage of a parliamentary bill that related only to England.
This legislation could only be passed if it wins the support of the majority of English MPs and the majority of the Commons as a whole. But other Tories called for a ban on Scottish MPs voting on English matters.
James Wharton, the Tory MP for Stockton South, who attended the meeting, told the Guardian: “There was unanimous agreement that it is time that English votes for English laws should be enacted. As further powers are devolved to Scotland we must address the English question and find a lasting settlement.”Wharton also raised the challenge to the north-east posed by further devolution to Holyrood which could give Scotland a competitive advantage. “I wanted in particular to raise the question of the challenge to the north east posed by further devolution to Scotland. My concerns were listened to and taken on board.”
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