Donald Macintyre's Sketch: MPs rearrange the constitutional deckchairs

English votes for English laws is not running smoothly

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Last week Chris Grayling announced that, in one of the great scientific breakthroughs of modern times, he had discovered the answer to the West Lothian Question. On Tuesday the Commons seemed a lot less sure that he had got it right.

“Evel” – English votes for English laws – is not running smoothly. OK, the government defeat by 289 was only symbolic. But as the veteran Tory unionist Sir Edward Leigh said of the Scottish Nationalists, “Of course they want independence. But why are we making it easier for them?”

At issue was what Labour’s Clive Efford called a “shabby little alteration” to Commons Standing Orders to exclude the Scots from English-only legislation, a fairly historic constitutional change that is justified by the fact that the English cannot vote on matters devolved to Scotland. True, the Labour outrage was predictable. So was that of the SNP’s Pete Wishart, for whom the plan was “utterly unacceptable”. But as Wishart ominously added: “If this is their attempt to save the Union, then God help them. It almost seems like they are absolutely determined to push us out.”

Several Tories beside Leigh wanted far more time to debate the issue than Grayling had allowed. He handsomely complimented a speech in which Ed Miliband, fast becoming a serial backbench debater, appealed to Tories to remember their great unionist traditions and not vote for an Evel plan devised “on the back of a fag packet”. So did the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson who called the plan “muddled”.

The debate lurched at points into bathos. “Solving this conundrum cannot be done by moving the deckchairs inside the Westminster bubble,” was Labour federalism fan Graham Allen’s mind-stretching metaphor. Tory Charles Walker’s Procedure Committee had not been consulted, as promised in the Conservative manifesto, because like all the other select committees it still hasn’t met since the election. Shouldn’t Grayling have therefore waited until it had, asked Labour’s Gisela Stuart? “The pursuit of perfection is always to be desired but is not often achieved,” said Walker. This sounded awfully like “Yes”.

Walker was troubled by the use of the word “or” in one of the clauses. “On the definition of ‘or’ the fate of nations may turn,” he announced. Given, as Leigh put it, that the “Union is hanging on a thread”, he could just be right. The Evel that men do lives after them, as Shakespeare almost said.