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In the past two weeks, David Cameron has been fighting for his political life amid rising panic in Downing Street that he might suffer the ignominy of becoming the British prime minister who presided over the break-up of a 307-year-old union.
But on Friday Mr Cameron appeared to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, using the Scots’ rejection of independence to his political advantage. Addressing the nation from the steps of Downing Street, he used the historic moment to promise English voters more powers.
In one stroke the prime minister had managed to kill off a brewing rebellion within his own party angered at the apparent asymmetrical treatment of the Scots over the English, while also laying a trap for Labour by setting down proposals that would put them at a political disadvantage.
“He has rescued the situation,” said Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford, who has in recent days joined a cacophony of Tory voices complaining about the prime minister’s handling of the referendum campaign.
“We have had an excellent result and he deserves credit for the fact he has immediately come up with a plan for an English settlement. It is not fleshed out in the way it needs to be, but he is moving in the right direction.”
John Redwood, who has been leading the charge for an English settlement, said the prime minister’s pronouncement on the steps of Downing Street was “first class. It was exactly what we wanted to hear.”
As Conservatives rejoiced that the union had been saved and their leader spared political humiliation on Friday, many in the Labour camp reacted in fury over Mr Cameron’s decision to tack sweeping constitutional reform in England on to the Scottish pledges made by all three political parties.
Mr Cameron’s pledge to only allow English MPs to vote on English matters – thus addressing the so-called West Lothian question – was a longstanding Conservative policy.
But the Labour leadership is deeply opposed to the policy and view it as an attempt by the Tories to sabotage a future Labour government. The party may struggle to win majorities on some key issues should its block of 40 Scottish MPs be barred from voting.
“The last thing Scotland needs is a constitutional fix which reduces Scotland’s voice at Westminster and strengthens Tories’ grip on power,” observed Owen Smith, the shadow Welsh secretary. Labour instead wants to devolve more power from Westminster to cities and regions.
“The Scots have had their say and now it is for the English, Welsh and Northern Irish to have their say. But this doesn’t mean that we are going to have English votes for English-only MPs,” added a senior Liberal Democrat adviser.
Opponents on Friday ruefully acknowledged his political skill in turning an impending crisis into a triumph, but warned that his success could prove shortlived.
“He will get Machiavellian brownie points on day one and a growing headache on days’ two to 10,” said one Labour adviser.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard