Building on the Government's attempt to turn devolution into Labour's electoral Achilles' heel, Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, last night raised the spectre of an English backlash that would leave Scotland with lower central funding and fewer MPs at Westminster. He warned that the current proportion of 72 MPs out of the UK's total of 651 - which has remained roughly the same since the Act of Union in 1707 - would not be sustainable if a Scottish tax-raising parliament came into being.
But in a fresh setback for the Government, a Gallup poll for the Daily Telegraph showed that 51 per cent of electors throughout the UK - including 30 percent of Tories - now favour a Scottish parliament. The poll gives Labour yet another record lead by showing that 62 per cent of electors would support Labour in an immediate general election compared with only 18.5 per cent who would vote Tory.
The Tory devolution warning came after John Major and Tony Blair staged a highly charged Commons dress rehearsal for what promises to be a central issue of the next election by clashing over Labour plans for a Welsh assembly and a Scottish parliament.
Mr Blair asked the Prime minister to explain why, if Labour's plans were so "dangerous", had he stood as a parliamentary candidate in 1974 on an election manifesto which promised devolution.
Mr Major insisted that 20 years ago tory proposals were not for a tax-raising assembly and added: "The nature of devolution with a tax-raising assembly will place Scot against Scot, Scot against Briton in other parts of the UK, leave Scotland as the highest taxed part of the UK, leave Scotland losing inward investment and Wales too were they to have such an assembly."
But Mr Blair responded: "Isn't the truth that your anger is synthetic and that after 15 years of Conservative government - 15 years of centralisation, of the quango state, of anything and everything being run by unaccountable bodies stuffed with Tory placemen - it is time to bring government closer to the people it serves?"
There are strong signs that Labour is shifting from its commitment to a parallel "regional tier" of government in England to a more flexible system of local and regional democracy which could be extended to cover services like health and education.
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