Cameron's Tories: 'A straightforward party of the union'

Tom Griffin
23 May 2008

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): The Crewe and Nantwich by-election will be concentrating many minds on the prospect of a Conservative government, not least in Scotland , where the Tories have only one MP.

That position has led some to suggest that the Conservatives would be better off conceding the SNP's case and hiving off Scotland altogether. In a speech to the party's Scottish Conference, Cameron set his face against that approach:

"Let me make it one hundred percent clear: I am passionate about the Union. I don't want to be the Prime Minister of England. I want to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom - all of it, including Scotland.

In an interview for the Herald, Cameron argued that there is now a vacancy for a strong pro-union party:

He sees, on the back of the Wendyrendum fiasco, a golden opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives to be the main beneficiaries from the Unionist vote by portraying themselves as the "straightforward party of the Union", who will defend it at all costs in any referendum.

Gordon Brown, he argues, is "playing games with the Union" by risking a referendum at a time of his deepest unpopularity. "There's a really big opportunity because Labour have completely screwed up on the Union with Bendy Wendy all over the place," he declares.

Wendy Alexander's idea did have one important merit, in that a majority of Scots support a referendum.

Cameron may not be ready to bow to that demand, but he is contemplating some significant changes to the status quo, including the abolition of the Barnett formula:

"This cannot last forever, the time is approaching ... If we replace the Barnett Formula with a needs-based formula, Scotland has very great needs and Scotland will get very great resources."

Asked if, therefore, the formula is coming to the end of the road, he replies: "Yes, that's right. I want this to happen in a consensual, sensible, non-inflammatory way and that's why I've been so reticent about it."

Of course, changes to Scotland's devolution settlement are currently being considered by the Calman Commission, on which the Conservatives are represented along with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Cameron told The Herald that "My gut feeling is that we mustn't do anything that sets us on a course to separatism and we need to find a comfortable and secure resting place where people feel comfortable that devolution can work and the Union can work."

The paper's editorial concludes that "A consensus appears to be emerging that Scotland should have greater fiscal autonomy and Mr Cameron hints that he could live with that."

That sounds a tad optimistic in terms of what Cameron actually said, but it is probably correct in that some degree of fiscal autonomy seems like an inevitable quid pro quo for abolition of the Barnett Formula.

That is not the only significant change that Cameron is considering. He told the Scottish Conference: "I am confident it will be possible to develop an arrangement whereby, when the House of Commons considers matters that affect only English constituencies, it is English MPs who have the decisive say."

Taken together, these would add up to a radical alteration of the UK's constitution. If the Conservatives are the party of the union, it may prove to be a very different union from the one that exists today.

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