Scottish independence: Leaders at war over powers

A CROSS-PARTY consensus on devolving further powers to Holyrood has been rocked by a row between the three main UK party leaders.

David Cameron: PM was in 
talks with Alistair Darling. Picture: PA
David Cameron: PM was in talks with Alistair Darling. Picture: PA

Less than a week after signing a pledge committing themselves to more powers to Scotland, Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg were at loggerheads over whether that should be accompanied by reform elsewhere in the UK.

In the wake of last week’s No vote in the independence referendum, Mr Cameron has said further devolution for Scotland should be extended to change the way the House of Commons works, to ensure only English MPs can vote on legislation that affects only England.

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His desire for the Holyrood settlement to go hand in hand with answering the West Lothian question, about the rights of Scottish and English MPs, has met with a cool response from Labour, which holds most of Scotland’s 59 seats.

Mr Miliband said a radical package of devolution must be delivered, “no ifs and buts”, and told Mr Cameron to keep his referendum promise to Scotland.

Former PM Gordon Brown has insisted he will make sure Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg stick to the proposed timetable for setting out future powers for Holyrood, which will be laid before the UK parliament today.

But with any deal on extending constitutional reform to other parts of the UK appearing distant, First Minister Alex Salmond claimed voters in Scotland had been “tricked” into voting No last week.

He said the pro-Union parties “will suffer the wrath of Khan” if they failed to deliver, and raised the prospect of the SNP trying to declare independence after winning a parliamentary majority at Holyrood in 2016. Opponents accused Mr Salmond of seeking to achieve his independence goal through “a coup”.

The Prime Minister will today host a summit at his country residence, Chequers, to discuss his devolution plans with senior Tories, including some of the loudest critics of his decision to sign up to further Scottish devolution. It is seen as a bid to head off a potential backbench rebellion on constitutional reform.

Talking about last week’s vote, Mr Miliband said: “There’s a huge danger that the political classes take the wrong lesson from this. In the referendum, 45 per cent of people voted to break up the UK. There were people who thought they had nothing to lose.

“It’s happening in England too, and people are turning away from political parties. There isn’t a simple answer to this question. We’ve been wrestling with this issue for 125 years. We can’t do this on the back on an envelope.

“Don’t play fast and loose with the constitution. Do change in the right way. I’m not in favour of a new parliament and a new tier of politicians. The establishment has got to understand the lessons. People aren’t willing to have business as usual.”

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna accused Mr Cameron of behaving in a “disgraceful” way over his response to the referendum. He said: “What you are seeing is the Prime Minister here behaving in a dishonourable way and in bad faith, because he has been seeking to link English votes for English MPs to the issue of Scottish devolution and what was agreed before the referendum.

“There was no mention of tying that – English votes for English MPs – to the reforms that we need to look at that have been agreed in Scotland.”

Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown was also highly critical. He said: “Mr Cameron, to satisfy his backbenchers and also to create a trap for Labour, played politics with his own promise. He must deliver on that. That promise to Scotland was made in something as close to blood as you get in politics.”

But Downing Street insisted constitutional reform north and south of the Border would run in parallel, and that the timetable for the Scottish reform package did not depend on reaching an agreement over England.

A No 10 source said: “That will happen – no ifs, no buts. It is not conditional on anything.”

However, Mr Clegg warned the Tories may end up “turning their back on Scotland while Labour ignores England”.

The Deputy Prime Ministersaid: “The Conservatives, in their rush to protect themselves from an attack from the right, are only concerned about English votes on English matters.

“If the Conservatives enter into a Dutch auction with Ukip over ever more extreme solutions to the issue of English votes, they could jeopardise the Union they purport to defend.”

He added: “Labour, by contrast, appears to have been taken by surprise by the unavoidable consequences of devolving new powers to Holyrood.

“They are choosing to ignore the dilemma of non-English MPs taking decisions on purely English issues – as a party with dozens of Scottish MPs, they have the most to lose.”

Meanwhile, Mr Miliband is coming under pressure from some of his MPs south of the Border over the issue of “English votes for English laws”.

Labour could see its ability to win Commons votes diminished if MPs for Scottish seats are prevented from taking decisions on English-only matters.

But Kate Hoey, who represents a London seat, said the party should not let a short-term disadvantage prevent it from doing “the right thing”. She said she had spoken to other MPs who shared her views but were not prepared to speak out while the Labour Party conference was taking place in Manchester.

She said: “If it’s wrong and something needs to be corrected, then even if in the short term it looks that it might be a disadvantage to our party, long term, if you do the right thing, it’s good for the party.”