Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

MPs shatter David Cameron's EVEL promise

Bitterly partisan and failing to display any signs of agreement, MPs' failure to rise to the occasion on English votes for English laws shows they are beyond redemption.

What makes the response to William Hague's statement on English devolution so depressing is that the Commons just carried on with business as usual.

The frontbenchers exchanged barbs over the relative failures in government of the coalition and of New Labour. The backbenchers heckled about the irrelevant Barnett formula and a dozen of their own half-developed ideas. They cancelled each other out, leaving an absence of anything meaningful.

They have also combined together to collectively break a big pledge from the prime minister.

Speaking in the early morning of September 19th, soon after the 'No' result was confirmed, David Cameron promised to English voters that his government would pursue an answer to the West Lothian Question "in tandem" with the Scottish devolution timetable. It was a pledge every bit as important as the infamous 'vow' to Scotland. Perhaps it emerged from the relieved euphoria which followed the result. Whatever the cause, it was a promise Westminster was destined to ensure could not be kept.

Hague, the leader of the House in what is set to be his last big job in politics, tried hard to at least maintain the impression of concurrent progress. But today he effectively admitted he has failed. Questioned by SNP MP Pete Wishart, Hague confirmed: "There is nothing conditional about any of these proposals... we can express the wish that [Scottish and English devolution] are concurrent, but they are not conditional and we are not tied to them."

It is the final death of the 'in tandem' promise. And it means all the urgency has gone out of the debate: the union is saved, allowing everything else to be downgraded in importance. There is a lot of anger about Scottish devolution, but no real answer about how to mirror it in England. Instead there is only division.

Division within the Tory party

Hague had been hoping to unite the Tory party behind a single proposal by the end of November. That didn't work out so well, and now there are few signs of Conservative unity this side of the election. John Redwood, whose preferred hardline option excluding non-English MPs from any English-only matter, led the charge. "England expects!" he thundered. It doesn't look like he can ever be placated.

Division within the government

The statement, revealing the differing views of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, led to the bizarre spectacle of Hague outlining Lib Dem views. He could barely keep himself from laughing as he worked his way through text about the single transferable vote. "There is no cross-party consensus," he observed drily, pulling himself together. The handful of Lib Dem MPs who bothered to show up - a very poor show from a party that supposedly cares passionately about constitutional reform - shifted in their seats uncomfortably as Labour and Tory MPs joined together in mocking laughter.

Division between the two main parties

Labour's shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, who has boycotted Hague's working group on the issue, baffled the Commons by insisting this was a "debate we are seeking to lead". His criticisms of the Tories' selfishness were undermined by hypocrisy, because Labour's positioning is just as preoccupied by partisan advantage. Hague responded by accusing Labour of "the remarkable feat of being out-of-touch with themselves" on English devolution. The stench of the looming general election filled the air.

Division between Westminster and the rest of us

"There are times when I have been very proud of this House rising to the great occasion, but today I feel ashamed of the House," Barry Sheerman shouted angrily. Graham Allen talked of "moving around the green benches on the Titanic". Hague hoped for a deal, but Allen just yelled back: "Get out of the bubble." John Denham lamented "the tragedy" of being "so close to a lasting agreement". So close, and yet so far. These voices were the ones identifying the real failure of Westminster in the wake of the Scottish referendum.

What the politicians want are dividing lines to help them win power in next year's general election.

I've written before about how this failure to reach agreement isn't such bad news for Hague, who in overseeing the process has at least put his party in a position where it can win votes. That is clever of him and serves his party's interest, but it does not serve that of ordinary people. The English, who Cameron had allowed to hope they might get more powers, deserve to feel very sorely disappointed at this rabble. Instead of real change they're getting more of the same, and nothing looks like changing it.

Only Tories stand in the way of a British constitutional revolution

Only the Tories stand in the way of a constitutional convention. If a vote were held in the Commons on this issue, there is a strong chance it would be approved. So is a petition of just 15,000 signatures really the best way of underlining its importance?

That is what will be handed into Downing Street today by organisers as they seek to bring about, in their own quiet way, what would be a massive moment in Britain's history.

The petition states:

"We the undersigned call on party leaders to set up a UK-wide Constitutional Convention to decide how the UK should be governed. The convention should be led by the people, not politicians, and should ensure fair and equal representation for the UK's nations and regions. It should decide the sharing of power between the four UK countries, and how power should be decentralised."

This is stirring stuff. If it happens, a convention of this kind would be an unparalleled victory for the campaigning organisations behind it - principally the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy, whose chiefs Katie Ghose and Alex Runswick are handing over the petition to Downing Street this lunchtime.

But they have a problem: 15,000 signatures is, in the modern world of e-petitions, not very impressive.

A quick glance at the e-petition website reveals a whole range of issues which have attracted more support. Eight thousand more people think there ought to be a recount of the Scottish independence referendum result. Twelve thousand more want to ban the sale of fireworks to the general public. Fifty thousand more want Britain to cease trading with Israel "until the Palestinians have their illegally stolen lands back". One hundred thousand more "oppose the proposed fees for nurses and midwives".

The reformers appear to appreciate this; they point to the distinguished credentials of some of their signatories, like constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor, and a range of civil society organisations, as if to compensate for the inadequacy of their mass appeal. The danger is that focusing on the petition risks ignoring the bigger picture: that Labour, Ukip, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats all agree on the need for a constitutional convention to happen.

Katie Ghose and Alex Runswick deliver the petition to No 10

"Fifteen thousand people signing up to this petition is a fantastic start and the momentum is really growing. This is just the beginning of the campaign," she told in Downing Street.

"It's exciting we've got so many of the major UK parties signed up to the idea of really strong citizen involvement in shaping the future of our constitution and the future of our democracy."

Runswick goes further: "Unlock Democracy believes this conversation is long overdue and it is not something which can be conducted behind the closed doors of a Cabinet committee meeting.

"There are already lively debates going on in communities across the country about where power should lie. We are calling on politicians to work collaboratively with the public in a constitutional convention to decide what’s next for the UK."

Labour's support for a convention is tainted by the suspicion it only wants one in order to kick the issue into the long grass. But the Lib Dems, who are actually engaging with the Tories in those secretive Cabinet sub-committee talks, have put a convention on the list of things they want to see. It might have been part of a big deal with the Tories, but that now seems unlikely. The government command paper now set to be published next week will merely include proposals from the two parties.

William Hague will make a statement to MPs on the government's command paper next week

This has all come as a little bit of a shock to campaigners. Now was supposed to be a quiet time for them after some big disappointments. The chance to change the voting system, viewed by many as the root of all evils in British political culture, was crushed early in this parliament by the alternative vote referendum defeat. The coalition's reforming zeal after the expenses scandal yielded precious few improvements, and those which did result - like the Fixed Term Parliament Act - have been dismissed as counterproductive. With the 2015 general election approaching, the expectation was one of very slow progress.

And then came the Scottish independence referendum. Not the thundering cataclysm of the end of the Union, but instead an extraordinary popular awakening north of the border which has echoed and resonated throughout the United Kingdom. It has, in truth, prompted a slow-burning constitutional crisis that will be resolved, one way or the other, in the coming months. Demands for English votes for English laws, matching or at least complimenting the new package of devolution to Scotland, is now intense. The status quo no longer seems tenable.

Will the Tories agree to a convention? It seems unlikely. But one overlooked comment from William Hague, who has been leading the Conservatives' search for an answer to the West Lothian Question, suggests agreement might be close after all.

Speaking on October 14th, as he rebuffed Labour calls for a convention as a "red herring", he did say this:

"There will be a place and a time for a constitutional convention, but not one that is simply a device to prevent those issues from being addressed now."

"A time and a place" - could that be in the next parliament? Perhaps next week's command paper might reveal more of the Tories' thinking. It could even be the breakthrough moment campaigners huddled outside Downing Street today have been searching for.

"William Hague has said he's open to the idea of citizen involvement in shaping the future of our democracy," Ghose added.

"After the Scottish referendum there are so many questions about devolution, about where power should lie both within the countries of the UK but also at local level as well. The message we're saying to all of the parties is that you cannot ignore citizens when it comes to these questions of identity and where power lies. It would be disastrous and illegitimate for the future working of our democracy if citizens weren't to be at the forefront of this change."

For Runswick, it's not about attacking the Tories. This is about something much bigger.

"We could just focus on getting the Conservative party to change their policy. But what we want to do is have a national debate," she said.

"You have to start from somewhere. So today was about saying 'this is the debate we've started, we've got all these people signed up, civic society and academics calling for this.' The ball is in your court. You can take action on this. You can open up debate beyond the Cabinet committee room and start a national debate about how we can be governed."

Shamed Candy Crush MP: Fighting committee tedium one sweet at a time

Nigel Mills resorting to Candy Crush for entertainment in a boring select committee hearing has left him humiliated. But if it wasn't for his limp explanation, he'd deserve forgiveness.

It is, probably, this relatively unknown MP's worst day in politics. He has made the front page of the Sun not for the nobleness of his devotion to public works, or his achievements in bettering the welfare of his constituents, but for his excruciatingly inappropriate addiction to a computer game when he really should have been working.

The front page says it all really:

Mills' preference for moving computerised jewels around over scrutinising important affairs of state doesn't make for good press.

But there's something a little unfair about the kneejerk condemnations on social media this morning. They're very quick to judge him negatively, when there might just be some sort of mitigating factors at play here.

We are all of us - even MPs - human. And it is not being said with sufficient volume this morning that there is nothing more tedious than a select committee meeting that drags on for hours and hours.

The format of these committee hearings is that about ten or so MPs sit around a horseshoe table and subject the witness - usually either a minister or expert of some kind - to endless questions.

That sounds quite interesting, but MPs on the panel aren't allowed to butt in and ask questions whenever they feel like it. Instead they have to wait their turn for a ten-minute exchange with the witness when they're in charge.

Beforehand, behind closed doors, the committee's MPs divide up the subject areas for questioning so they don't overlap too much. If you're one of the last MPs on the chairman's list, you might end up waiting a couple of hours before getting your turn.

Two hours of doing effectively nothing. To some people that would be a dream job. To MPs, whose lives are usually hectic and whose diary are always crammed, it can be intensely frustrating.

David Cameron gives evidence to the liaison committee of senior MPs

Only last week I stepped out of a committee hearing to have my ears bombarded with contempt for the system by one senior MP. "It's a stupid system," he hissed.

And yet parliament views select committees as one of its best innovations. They had been around for centuries, of course, but their modern incarnation has only really been effective for a few decades or so. Their reports carry clout because they are usually the result of a cross-party consensus - so anything critical they say of the government is usually newsworthy. It's just the way they get there which is so painful.

Journalists, too, are often vocal about the way MPs hold their evidence sessions. They generate headlines, but often leave many hoping for more. This is true even of the most exciting sessions: Bob Diamond appearing before the Treasury committee in the wake of the financial crisis, or Rupert Murdoch facing Tom Watson over phone-hacking. These are electric occasions but often disappoint.

The drama is the exception. Most committee hearings are dull affairs, scrutinising dull issues and holding dull people to account, which take a very long period of time. Ninety minutes into the last select committee session I attended the journalist sitting next to me jabbed me in the ribs. "Look!" he whispered delightedly. One of the MPs who hadn't been called on in a while had his eyes closed. He was, if not quite asleep, on the brink. A minute passed before he opened his eyes and looked at us, half-angry, half-guilty. We tried our best not to laugh too openly.

The session in which Mills was caught was probably not the most gripping. Pensions, even for those who voluntarily make them part of their life, are never going to be box-office.

All of this might go some way towards helping us appreciate why Mills would do something so stupid. It might even prompt a little bit of sympathy.

If it does, you haven't read the explanation for his behaviour. His four sentences of damage limitation quoted by the Sun are just agonising:

"It was a long meeting on pension reforms, which is an important issue that I take very seriously."

"Long meeting" screams 'this is an excuse, not a reason'. Highlighting the fact this is an important issue only appears to create a contradiction between what he claims and what he actually did.

"There was a bit of the meeting that I wasn't focusing on and I probably had a game or two."

The Sun reports that he played Candy Crush virtually non-stop for two-and-a-half hours. Rather long games, then.

"I should not do it but if you check the meeting, I would say I was fully engaged in asking questions I felt were particularly important on how we get pensions issues right."

Mills confirms his behaviour and his intentions are at odds with each other. How much weight would this excuse have in a normal job? How many people would be fired if they responded like this?

"I shall try not to do it in future."

The word 'try' should not be appearing in this sentence. It looks weak. It is half-hearted.

It's someone who is not 100% committed to their job. It shows laziness in such a blatantly blasé way that many of Mills' constituents might well raise their eyebrows.

If Mills were one of the many Tory MPs whose majorities are so enormous they can afford to treat their voters with disdain his behaviour might at least be understandable.

But as it is his 2010 majority, when he won his Amber Valley seat from Labour, is just 536 votes. Experts have already written off the chance of any candidate winning the seat in 2015 if they stand as a Tory because of the Ukip threat alone. Yet Mills is trying to do just that.

Today's headlines are not going to help him much. It makes his behaviour inexplicable. Many future politicians will continue to be bored into submission by parliament's imperfect select committee system, but the odds are Mills will not be one of them.

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