MANCHESTER England (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron tried to head off a rebellion in his Conservative party over a promise of new powers for Scotland, highlighting the difficulty of giving Scots what they want after last week’s referendum on Scottish independence.
Facing a difficult re-election contest next year, Cameron summoned a small group of disgruntled MPs to his country residence outside London on Monday to hear their complaints and to see what he could do to mollify them.
One of the attendees, Conservative lawmaker James Wharton, said before the meeting Cameron needed to address concern that new powers for Scotland could disadvantage the rest of Britain, including England.
“There is a need to do something for England as well, there needs to be an English settlement,” he said. Although England is Britain’s biggest nation, it is the only part not to have been given any devolution of powers.
“We need to ensure that whatever happens to Scotland, whatever it’s decided that Scotland is going to get under this process, that there’s a quid pro quo that ensures the north of England doesn’t lose out,” he said.
The emergency meeting underlines the challenges Britain’s political elite faces in delivering more devolution to Scotland, even as the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) accused British politicians of tricking Scots out of independence by making false promises.
Two days before Scots voted “No” to independence, the leaders of the three main parties agreed to give Scots new powers over tax, welfare and spending and to continue a contested arrangement whereby Scotland receives far more central government funding per head than the rest of Britain.
But some MPs from Cameron’s Conservatives said they couldn’t accept what they argued was too generous an arrangement that failed to address English rights, raising the possibility of a rebellion that could sabotage the deal.
In particular, they said they wanted “English votes for English rights” - ending the practice whereby non-English MPs can vote on English matters but not vice-versa.
Some Conservatives also questioned whether Scotland should continue to receive more funding per head than the rest of Britain if it wants more autonomy and some tax-raising powers. Claire Perry, one such lawmaker, said Scots shouldn’t be given “financial party bags”, while another, James Gray, likened giving Scots more concessions to “feeding an addiction.”
Such talk has stoked anger among Scots nationalists, and the SNP demanded to know on Monday whether Scotland’s budget was protected or whether British politicians were planning what it called “a cash grab”.
Cameron is expected to offer his disgruntled MPs a vote in parliament on the “English question” before the next election, something the opposition Labour party has made clear it wouldn’t support for now.
Keen to avoid being cast as a leader who promised Scots a deal but then failed to deliver, Cameron appeared to initially suggest that agreeing new Scottish powers could only be done if new arrangements for England were agreed at the same time.
But after Salmond, the leader of the SNP, and even anti-independence politicians, complained about this linkage, sources in Cameron’s office said on Sunday a Scottish deal wouldn’t be contingent upon an English deal.
He and other party leaders now face a tight deadline: to secure cross-party agreement on new powers for Scotland in November and to put them in writing by the end of January.
“That strikes me as blisteringly fast, when you consider the gravity of the matters at stake. If we give any more powers to Scottish politicians, then we simply must address the basic unfairness to England,” London Mayor Boris Johnson, tipped as a future Conservative leader, wrote in the Telegraph.
A national election in May means there isn’t enough parliamentary time left to enshrine the new powers in law until after the vote, but the idea is to clinch a deal that whoever wins the 2015 election would implement.
Even if the three parties are able to agree on Scotland, reaching agreement on the English question will prove more difficult. Cameron’s party is at loggerheads with Labour over the issue.
Labour, which also has rebel MPs seeking change for England, says it wants to set up a constitutional convention after the next election to discuss UK-wide devolution but not do anything before then. Its leadership has refused to say if it feels the idea of English votes for English laws is a good one.
Labour has fewer MPs in England than the Conservatives, so under such proposals a Labour government could lose its ability to get legislation through parliament.
“Cameron is just trying to dupe people with an idea that he’s got some easy, quick political fix,” Labour finance spokesman Ed Balls told BBC Radio on Monday. “You can’t play political games with our constitution.”
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan and William James; Editing by Larry King