Wednesday, July 26, 2006

England demands a voice

Published in the Newcastle Journal, Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph on Saturday, July 8, 2006.


A few weeks back, in the wake of the revelations about his affair with diary secretary Tracey Temple, I posed the question whether Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott should remain in office.

My conclusion was that he had outlived his usefulness as a minister, and that his sole case for staying was that it would be better for the Labour Party to resolve the leadership and deputy leadership issues at the same time.

I added that this was not an argument for Mr Prescott to cling on till Mr Blair goes, but rather, an argument that they should both go now.

Well, the pressure was back on Mr Prescott again this week – but nothing I have seen or heard since I wrote those words has altered my view that it is high time for a clean sweep at the top.

Some claim Mr Prescott is the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by politically-motivated Tory “bloggers” – individuals who run their own personal websites for those not familiar with the term.

In fact, all that is happening is that journalists who can’t get their stories past the lawyers are leaking them to internet sites which, being part of the “world wide web,” aren’t covered by the UK libel laws.

The latest speculation is that all this will end in Mr Prescott relinquishing the role of Deputy Prime Minister and retaining only the meaningless title of Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

If so, it can only be a short-term fix to get the government through to the Labour Party conference in Manchester, when the leadership issue will surely have to be settled once and for all.

In my earlier piece, I argued that the real reason Mr Prescott should quit was not because he had an extra-marital affair, but because all the major political projects with which he has been associated have ended in failure.

Chief among those of course, was elected regional government – but I won’t go there again just yet as that was the subject of last week’s column.

What, though, of the Government’s wider devolution agenda? Well, when the Tories weren’t queueing up to bash Mr Prescott this week, they were queueing up to bash the real enemy – Gordon Brown.

Their weapon? The Chancellor’s standing as a Scottish MP with a say over English health, education and transport policies which, thanks to devolution, he is now denied in respect of his own constituency.

Labour have only themselves to blame for the fact that the Conservatives are now determined to make the so-called “West Lothian Question” an election issue.

They embarked on an ambitious programme of devolution for Scotland and Wales while completely neglecting to deal with either the English dimension of that, or where it would leave Scottish and Welsh MPs.

It has left Tories who want to question the legitimacy of Mr Brown’s claims to the premiership with a completely open goal.

Hence their renewed interest in the concept of “English-only votes for English-only laws” as trailed earlier this week.

Faced with this likely line of attack, it is equally unsurprising that Mr Brown has been seeking to pre-empt it in recent weeks by wrapping himself in the Flag of St George.

Mr Brown will need more than stunts to head off this threat, though He will need to come up with a credible intellectual rebuttal of the Tories’ proposals.

The big difficulty with “English votes for English laws” is that it will create a Parliament within a Parliament, and effectively a different government for England as for the UK as a whole.

But if that is the inevitable end result, the question then arises: why not go the whole hog and create a separate English Parliament?

When Mr Blair leaves office, he will leave behind a series of reforms that are, at best, half-finished, and at worst, a bodge job.

His successor, though, will have at least an opportunity to put this right, and if he wants to see off the Cameron threat he will need to grab it.

The way in which Mr Brown – or whoever else takes over as Labour leader – chooses to tackle this issue will, in my view, have very far-reaching political repercussions.

Much more far-reaching, in fact, than the future of John Prescott.

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