Constitutional hangover

Written by Tom Freeman on 29 September 2014 in Inside Politics

The reform agenda dominates Conservative Party conference

 

For the Conservatives, an infamous champagne party, perhaps including guests such as David Bowie, Stephen Hawking and Kermit the Frog, will have followed the result of the Scottish independence referendum.

“The biggest, broadest conversation about the future of our country. It made us find common cause with the unlikeliest of people,” Scottish leader Ruth Davidson said of the historic time. 
During the resultant hangover, Conservatives may have fantasised about what might have been. After all, an independent Scotland might have been a boon for the party’s fortunes on both sides of the Tweed.

Writing in the Conservative Home blog, Paul Goodman pointed out how the loss of Scotland to Westminster elections would have presented the party with a numerical advantage south of the border. Conservatives were campaigning from the heart, not the head, wrote Goodman, because “The future of the Union matters more than the fortunes of the Conservative Party.”

Even though a Yes vote would have probably signalled the end of his premiership, this idea was certainly echoed by Prime Minister David Cameron who, days before the vote, told a rally in Aberdeen: “Don’t think: I’m frustrated with politics right now, so I’ll walk out the door and never come back. If you don’t like me – I won’t be here forever. If you don’t like this Government – it won’t last forever. But if you leave the UK – that will be forever.”

In Scotland, too, the fortunes of the Conservative Party may have changed. A new centre-right party unshackled by a long association with unionism and what many voters saw as a toxic brand – Thatcher – may have flourished. Dreams of what might have been will have been obscured by the sweet taste of victory in the referendum, though, and the sobering prospect of building for the General Election next year while remaining behind in the polls.

If David Cameron does have a post-referendum hangover, it is not helped by the repercussions of a vow for a fast timetable for more powers for Scotland in the final week of the campaign, which London Mayor Boris Johnson, who will seek election to Westminster next year and is seen as a potential leadership rival, called “reckless”. Cameron quickly sought to quell backbench disquiet by insisting a new constitutional deal for Scotland must also encompass the rest of the UK. “We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must be heard,” he said, pledging to tackle the ‘West Lothian question’ – Scots MPs voting on issues that have no consequence in Scotland.

For Scotland’s Conservative MEP Ian Duncan, however, it is Yes voters who are suffering from the real hangover. “Anyone who was on Twitter or Facebook over that weekend will have seen a lot of ‘the 45’ demanding to know today what it’ll all look like and I’m slightly struck by thinking it’s Sunday, it’s 48 hours after the election, you should be sitting drinking a cup of tea and reading the Sunday Post or something, rather than getting maniacally caught up this. The important thing in the short term is to deliver what is right and workable,” he says. 

Ruth Davidson also gives a rallying call. “This process is real, it is happening and it will change the powers of this parliament. The SNP needs to make a decision – is it going to continue sniping from the sidelines or is it going to get on board, and work – in good faith – to develop our democracy here in Scotland,” she told parliament.

However, bringing the rest of the UK into the constitutional argument has triggered a row between all parties over the governance of Britain, and perhaps fanned the flame of the party threatening Conservative votes from the wings: UKIP. Its leader, Nigel Farage MEP, called for Scottish MPs to stop voting on English matters, and a repeal of the Barnett formula, the funding arrangement which sees Scotland’s allocation of public money topped up. “We’ve had a lot from Scotland but the tail cannot go on wagging the dog any longer,” he said.

Labour “struggling with the West Lothian question” at their party conference shows it is they, and not the Conservatives, who are presented with the real challenge, according to Duncan. “I do think the West Lothian question will be important to resolve. I don’t think you can look at resolving a constitutional settlement in one part of the kingdom and think everything else will be ok. I think there needs to be recognition now that the powers from the centre need to be reconsidered. That affects not just Scotland but each of the other parts: England, Northern Ireland and Wales. I think that’s quite clear to everyone apart from perhaps the Labour Party,” he says.

As well as starting the campaign for an overall majority in the Commons, it is clear the Conservative Party conference will be also be dominated by the constitution. Duncan insists there is broad agreement about tackling the West Lothian question, “but the real serious issue is how.”

All eyes will be on the conference to see what detail emerges on the constitution, and any potential ramifications. Duncan admits the Barnett formula will be questioned, despite its protection forming part of the pre-referendum pledge. “I think it will come into discussion. The Barnett formula as presently constituted is rather rough in the way it treats certain parts of the UK. My sense of this is once the powers are set out, and I think there will be very clear tax-raising powers for Scotland, and probably for the other parts of the UK too, at that point, you would need to consider exactly how the Barnett formula should reflect these new serious and significant powers,” he says.

It is not just the Scottish constitutional question hanging over Conservative HQ, however. The rise of UKIP and the promise of an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership has led to reports of disquiet on the Conservative backbenches.

Sue Hacon, a Conservative councillor in Norfolk, defected to UKIP last week, joining the recent shock defection of MP Douglas Carswell. UKIP has been using a polling company to canvass constituents in marginal seats to ask if they would be more likely to vote for the sitting MP if they represented UKIP, then presenting the MP with the results, it has been claimed. 

Divisions over Europe remain an issue for the Conservatives, it would seem. Not so, according to Ian Duncan. “Sitting out here, that’s not how I see it. I’ve got a lot of colleagues out here who are very much plugged in to what I would call the reform agenda in Brussels, and we’re not alone in that, we belong to a group of like-minded parties from other countries, very keen to deliver that,” he says.

Other countries have begun to articulate the value of the UK’s contribution to the reform agenda, according to Duncan. “The challenge now, and this is where both Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage are remarkably similar in approach, both have said with one bound we shall be free – Mr Salmond from London’s control, Mr Farage from Brussels’ control. Serious work has to be done here. There is no magic bullet, no sparkling powder we can sprinkle to make it all better. What we have to do is get into the serious negotiations here in Brussels,” he says.

Duncan feels, with the recent appointment of Lord Hill of Oareford as European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union, the party has a man in a driving seat of that reform. “The good thing with Lord Hill, he’s got previous. He was a guy working for Major who managed to secure such an extraordinary deal when it came to the Maastricht Treaty. He managed to get so many of the aspects we cared about protected. We were able to avoid commitment to the euro. We were able to avoid, at that point, commitments to the ‘Social Chapter’ as was then written, so I think in truth, the serious work has to be done by serious-minded people, and UKIP don’t have serious-minded people. They’ve got people who shout from the sidelines who are not serious about reform.”

But when Carswell defected he called Westminster politics a “cosy little clique” uncommitted to real change. “The problem is that many of those at the top of the Conservative Party are simply not on our side. They aren’t serious about the change that Britain so desperately needs,” he said in his statement, adding on Europe, David Cameron “made it clear that they’re looking to cut a deal that gives them just enough to persuade enough voters to vote to stay in.” If Cameron is to lead the Conservatives to victory at the General Election, he must first win back the trust of his backbenchers by appearing more accessible.

The 2010 manifesto caused some acrimony in the party ranks because it was felt it had been developed by only a select few, what has been described as an ‘inner circle’ of Etonians by Michael Gove and others. This prompted Cameron to appoint a series of policy commissions from backbench ranks when preparing the manifesto for 2015. Their results were delivered to the policy board, headed by Orpington MP Jo Johnson, another Etonian.

It will be essential for David Cameron to dust off the image of being a PM who surrounds himself with like-minded and educated people, if he wants to achieve his aim of getting into Number 10 without the help of a coalition partner this time.

Ian Duncan disagrees. “A lot of allegations are made about Mr Cameron being elite and aloof and so on, and yet when you look at what he’s done, both in terms of the commitment to the [Scottish] referendum and to it being a binding referendum, not just a indicative one, when you look at his record and contrast that with other people’s assertions, you’re often surprised by how progressive he has been in the things he has sought to deliver. Where somebody went to school is all very important, but in truth, as long as they are able to commit to a progressive strategy, that’s what matters.”

There can be no accusations of an elitist clique in the Scottish party, he says. “In Ruth Davidson, you could not get a person more open to the membership and more widely to the people of Scotland. Her views are very clear about how this should work. We’ve recognised there is a lot of concern and we’re trying to respond to it. Again, when you look at someone like Michael Gove, born and raised up in Aberdeen, very much aware of the Scottish dimension and what is going on. But I think in truth, the concerns and the issues and views of Scotland are being well encapsulated. And out here in Brussels, I’m very eager again in my new role here to make sure everyone in Scotland feels they can connect with me and I can connect with them. I’ve got a lot of learning to do,” he says. 

Duncan says he is committed to pulling together a seminar in Brussels to look at the European end of any constitutional settlement to contribute to the ongoing debate. He plans to invite all parties to take part in that.

Ruth Davidson says it is time to move on from the way the debate in Scotland has been framed for the last two years. She says: “We must now refocus our energies back onto the things that so many people go into politics for. Not the constitutional merry-go-round, but the basic bread and butter issues that help bring real change to people’s lives. When too many children are not getting the education they deserve, when not enough people are in work, and when too many taxpayers are being hit in the pocket, it’s time for politicians of all colours to consider these issues.”

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