Donald Macintyre's Sketch: William Hague gives us a taste of what we'll be missing when he is gone

 

William Hague is a witty – even sparkling – speaker who has delighted audiences since his appearance as a precocious 16-year-old at a Tory conference during the Thatcher years. So today he had a last laugh by making a speech on English devolution of enervating, narcotic tedium. And doing it at a Westminster hang-out optimistically named “The Ideas Space” in front of a big billboard bearing the slogan “A Fair United Kingdom”. AFUK may be a more benign acronym than the sinister-sounding EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) but it’s possibly more open to misinterpretation.

We were already fighting to keep awake when Hague began outlining how brilliantly the Government had transferred “significant powers from Westminster to local areas and neighbourhoods” – except, of course, ones allowing councils to raise taxes to pay for the “excellent local services” he acknowledged people wanted. The Localism Act, he continued in his relentless Yorkshire monotone, had “devolved planning functions from councils to local communities through the introduction of Neighbourhood Plans, approved by the local community in a referendum. Almost 1,400 communities are now engaged at different stages of the neighbourhood planning process…” By now even Hague himself was looking a bit sleepy.

This was probably a cunning plan to put his audience in an induced coma by the time he got to the section on EVEL itself, or what he helpfully pointed out would sometimes be English and Welsh Votes for English and Welsh Laws – the aptly Celtic-sounding EWVEWL. While Hague’s answer to Tam Dalyell’s famous West Lothian question (why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on issues which affect only England (and Wales) because in Scotland they’re devolved) is ingenious, if complicated, it’s also controversial. You can see why the former Labour Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine once said the best answer to the West Lothian question was not to ask it.

Under the Tory manifesto proposal, English MPs would have a veto on laws affecting only England. But the UK Parliament would have a veto too. Labour don’t like this because they might not be able to get their bills through if they’re deprived of Scottish support. But lots of nationalist-minded English Tories don’t like it either because it’s not the English Parliament they really want.

This may be sensible. It may help to preserve the union. But it isn’t going to happen quietly. You felt the departing Hague had lit the blue touch paper and was now standing well back. He brightened suddenly when asked if it would be a “red line” in any future coalition talks. Well, he said, the one certainty was that, unlike last time, he wouldn’t be conducting any such negotiations. “I won’t be there,” he explained, beaming happily.

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