Tories launch assault on devolution plans

Ministers in concerted effort to make political capital out of `weaknes s' in Labour strategy
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The Independent Online
A Tory strategy to make maximum political capital out of Labour's devolution plans for Scotland and Wales got under way yesterday with a raft of critical speeches from six ministers, three of them in the Cabinet.

The ongoing offensive will centre on Labour's difficulty in answering the so-called "West Lothian" question - Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on English issues - and will continue to gnaw away at whether the number of Scottish and Welsh members at Westminster would have to decline.

It follows the claim by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, on BBC1's Question Time this week that Labour planned to throw away Britain's sovereignty and play into the hands of pro-European federalists.

George Robertson, Labour spokesman on Scottish affairs, hit back, exploiting the Government's setback in yesterday's Gallup/Daily Telegraph poll which showed 51 per cent of electors supporting a Scottish parliament.

The poll showed the Tories were "seriously out of touch", he said, while John Major's "over-the-top" message was counter-productive. "This government is so discredited that if they oppose something the people automatically know it must be right.

"They say the Union will be defended with every fibre but are involved in reshaping Northern Ireland. They call devolution plans `teenage madness' and `the most dangerous proposition ever' but have ex-prime ministers and present cabinet ministers on the record advocating similar devolutionary change.''

But one of these, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, joined in yesterday's Tory onslaught, saying Labour was "well aware that England could not tolerate Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on English issues at Westminster when comparable Scottishand Welsh issues had been transferred to Edinburgh and Cardiff, but they refuse to admit it"

He went on: "The logical choice is the same today as it was in the 1970s. Britain can continue to be a unitary state; alternatively there could be a federal structure for the whole of the UK; or the Union could be terminated. Instead of any of these theyhave proposed the most foolish and unworkable structure of all.''

John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for National Heritage, Viscount Cranborne, Leader of the Lords, Gerry Malone, the Health Minister and even Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, a social security minister not noted for making political speeches, joined in the fray.

Mr Redwood fastened on Labour ambivalence over the structure for England and demanded to know whether it would extend regional government to all its regions.

"How can, say, North-east England have a regional assembly and other parts of England not? Would North-east England's MPs be able to vote on southern English issues?''

Viscount Cranborne said: "If Scotland deserves a half parliament with tax-raising powers, why does Wales, this ancient and proud principality, not deserve one as well?

And what have the regions of England done to deserve their own parliaments with a measure of devolved legislative power?'' Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said on Thursday that Jack Straw, Labour spokesman on home affairs, would be producing a paperon regional government in England.

There are strong indications that shadow ministers are moving away from their rigid pre-general election commitment to a "regional tier of government" in England to match devolution in Wales and Scotland.

Instead they are looking more to a flexible and more voluntarist system of regional and local democracy to cover services like education and health, and to co-ordinate economic issues like inward investment.