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Labour leader Ed Miliband is caught in an awkward dilemma after the Scottish vote – under pressure from his Scottish MPs to deliver on promises of further devolution but fearful of what this might mean for his chances of winning a majority in the House of Commons.
As he addressed bleary-eyed Labour supporters in Glasgow after the No victory was confirmed, Mr Miliband was optimistic. “That was a vote for community and social justice,” he told activists, suggesting Labour could take lessons from the result for next year’s general election. “That was a vote for change.”
But behind the scenes, his advisers were seething at the statement made by Prime Minister David Cameron just two hours earlier on the steps of Downing Street suggesting he would give English MPs the final say over legislation affecting only England as part of a new constitutional settlement for Scotland.
A spokesman for Mr Miliband said: “”[Mr Cameron] has failed to live up to what should be a historic moment by trying to be nakedly partisan in his response.”
He added: “Constitutional change should not just be driven by a committee in Whitehall, it should be directed by the people of the UK, who should be given a say.”
What lies behind Labour’s anger is a concern over the implications of Mr Cameron’s proposal. While giving English MPs the final say over legislation that only affects England might sound uncontroversial, the implications for Mr Miliband’s party are profound. It has 40 Scottish MPs while the Conservatives have only one.
The Scottish parliament already has extensive powers over education and health and some powers over taxation, which are likely to be extended. Some welfare spending may also be devolved.
So Mr Cameron’s suggestion, if taken to its logical conclusion, might even stop Scottish MPs from voting on the Budget, as well as on a long list of legislation affecting other policy areas devolved to Scotland.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Mr Cameron’s announcement struck him as a “fairly knee-jerk reaction which . . . may well have been driven more by politics than by a considered judgment of the needs of the constitution”.
Another Labour adviser was starker: “This can’t happen. The only question is how we can stop it.”
But Mr Cameron’s move was not the only headache for Mr Miliband. While the Labour leader threw himself into the campaign in its final days following a shock opinion poll giving the Yes side a lead, he found himself upstaged by his predecessor, Gordon Brown.
Mr Brown’s passionate Glasgow speech on the eve of the poll, in which he extolled the virtues of the union, was lauded as the best of the campaign, and one of the former prime minister’s best ever.
Finally, Mr Miliband has discovered the limits to his popularity in Scotland. Having travelled to the relative security of affluent Edinburgh, the Labour leader found himself hounded out of a shopping centre by Yes campaign supporters who shouted insults, calling him an “f****** liar” and a “serial murderer”.
If Mr Miliband needed proof of Labour’s declining grip on Scotland, it came in that Edinburgh shopping centre, and again on Thursday night in Glasgow, the former Labour stronghold that was one of only a handful of Scottish voting districts to choose Yes.