Charlie Jeffery looks at the Conservatives conversion to EVEL and asks if it reflects genuine concerns about how England is governed or short-term tactical opportunism?
So now we have it confirmed. David Cameron and William Hague last Friday pledged the introduction of English Votes on English Laws (EVEL) within 100 days should the Conservatives win the general election. They did so to boot while launching a special election manifesto for English voters only, another first in this extraordinary election campaign.
The response elsewhere has been pretty clear: this is shameless tactical manoeuvring that risks the union Cameron put so much energy into saving last year. But if we stand back and take a more dispassionate look, what do we see? Well, plenty of shameless tactical manoeuvring.
If you are a party which for the last four UK elections has had a maximum of one MP from Scotland, then planning to exclude Scottish MPs from parts of the legislative process in England-only bills in the House of Commons has a certain logic. It might leave poor old David Mundell (the lone Scottish Conservative MP) twiddling his thumbs. But it would also leave the other 58 MPs from Scotland – mostly Labour now, but mostly SNP after 7 May according to all the main election forecasters – twiddling their thumbs too. No great loss for the Conservative Party there.
But there is more to it than that. People in England in their great majority are not happy with the way they are governed. This may seem a bit rich when most of the UK’s 650 MPs are elected by the English voters who make up more than four-fifths of the UK’s electorate. But it's true. In our research on how people in England view the political system around a quarter at most opt for current arrangements when given a choice of the status quo among alternatives. And whichever set of alternative options we put to them, EVEL is the top choice.
So Cameron and Hague might be seen to be responding to popular demand. There is still more to it than that though. The idea of introducing EVEL in 100 days is risible given the ‘upstream’ changes that would need to be made to make EVEL work properly. I set these out in an earlier blog. Rather ironically one of those upstream changes – along with getting rid of the Barnett formula, changing how Whitehall ministries work, and changing the way House of Commons Bills are drafted – was for the main parties to publish manifestos for England which would focus public debate on issues specific to England. So the Conservatives have at least one thing right.
But let’s get back to shameless political tactics. Because that’s what these under-formed plans for EVEL, injected at a late stage into a late stage of the election campaign, are. They are an attempt to shore up support on the right flank of the Conservative Party by exploiting the febrile discussion in England that the House of Commons is about to be overrun by Nicola Sturgeon’s tartan army. When we surveyed opinion in England a year ago, we found that support for EVEL among English voters was strongly associated with views that Scotland gets too good a deal in the UK – and both views were most strongly held by voters leaning towards UKIP. And we found that supporters of UKIP were more likely than anything else to be ex-Conservatives.
So in this light, is the conversion of the Conservatives to EVEL a carefully considered contribution to the constitutional renewal of the UK which reflects genuine concerns about how England is governed, or short-term tactical opportunism to head off the UKIP threat with little thought to the consequences? Readers can come to their own conclusions.