Criticism from his own benches raised speculation that David Cameron will have to make concessions if he wants to avoid an embarrassing defeat over the intended measures at a Commons vote next week.
After an emergency debate on plans to implement Evel via changes to Commons rules rather than a change in the law, former Tory leadership contender David Davis raised a point of order, urging ministers to offer more time to consider the scheme. There are concerns within Conservative ranks that the government is trying to rush its Evel plans through the Commons.
Some MPs spoke out against the way ministers plan to carry out the manifesto promise, which would see English MPs given a veto on legislation which affects England only. Mr Davis’ concern echoed significant worries raised by Labour and SNP MPs about the government’s plans during the three-hour debate secured by Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael.
Given the significant opposition outside the Conservative Party, a handful of rebels could embarrass the government – which has a working majority of just 16 – with defeat on a high-profile manifesto commitment.
Opposition MPs scored a symbolic victory over the government plans yesterday, voting down a meaningless motion. The staged vote – on which the government abstained – saw Labour MPs act as tellers for both sides of the Commons division to ensure the vote went ahead, with opponents of the plans winning 291 to two, majority 289. Labour claimed the Tories abstained because whips were not confident of winning, and to vote would have exposed a split.
Opposition MPs cheered loudly when the result was announced, waving their papers and some shouting “resign”.
The absence of Commons leader Chris Grayling, who is in charge of the plans, at the end of the debate, prompted cries of “Where is he?” from the Labour and SNP benches.
Speaker John Bercow told shadow leader of the House Angela Eagle: “A point has been made, nothing has been decided.”
But the result prompted Mr Davis, the Haltemprice and Howden MP, to add in a point of order “because many of us have abstained on it rather than vote for it because we feel it needs more time to be discussed”.
SNP Commons spokesman Pete Wishart later said: “The Tory government have been humiliated over their own Evel proposals, showing just how vulnerable to defeat this measure is, and how precarious is the government’s position with their wafer-thin majority.”
Mr Carmichael, the former Scotland secretary, warned the government was trying to create a full English parliament without proper process. He said: “The threat [to the Union] does come from English nationalism. What pains me to say today though is that English nationalism is to be found on the Treasury bench.”
Mr Grayling plans to push through his plans next Wednesday, following one day’s debate. He said he was pleased to explain the government’s plans to “strengthen the Union” by addressing the situation whereby Scottish MPs can vote on issues affecting England but English MPs cannot vote on similar matters which are devolved, telling MPs: “Fairness requires that further devolution of powers to Scotland, England and Wales is accompanied by a louder voice for England here at Westminster on English matters.”
During the debate former Labour leader Ed Miliband called the plans for Evel an “act of constitutional vandalism”.
Mr Wishart, the new Scottish affairs committee chairman, said the only solution was full federalism – to create a separate English parliament alongside Holyrood, the Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly and for Westminster to only decide on shared UK-wide issues.
He said: “We do our thing. We decide in our nation what we want and English members decide what they want and Welsh members decide what they want. What’s wrong with that?
“Then we come together in this House and we decide important things like foreign affairs, like defence, like international relationships.”