In the speech, Cameron takes a notably softer line than in the press interviews he gave earlier in the week (discussed here). He promises a ‘fresh start’ to relations between UK and Scottish Governments, to meet the First Minister at an early date. The emphasis was on a new, non-Thatcherite approach to Scotland generally, and for the most part short on specifics about he proposes this new approach might work.
The exception relates to constitutional matters, where he says:
… we do take seriously the Calman Commission’ recommendations to give more powers to Holyrood. The Commission is right to say devolution is working well but could be better. That’s why I have committed to producing our own White Paper and legislation to with the issues raised by Calman. And I don’t want anyone to doubt this.
While this is unspecific, it is a strong statement of intent – and the choices that are in fact are practicable are sufficiently limited that, in reality, this is unlikely to mean a very different approach to that already laid out by Labour.
However, the difference in tone between this speech and the earlier interviews is very marked. It’s not hard to think that these mixed messages indicate a degree of confusion, or electoral opportunism, in how the Conservatives think about Scottish devolution (even if Brian Taylor thinks the positions can be reconciled). At the very least, it stokes a set of expectations about how Scotland will be treated among backbench Conservative MPs (and those who will be MPs) that will significantly limit Cameron’s room for manoeuvre.
UPDATE: On Sunday 14 February, Cameron gave an interview to the BBC’s Politics Show Scotland, reported here. In it, he committed the Conservatives more fully than before to implementing the Calman Commission’s recommendations – but also indicated that this would happen at some point during the first term of a Conservative government, with no particular timetable for doing so.
That could mean that not only are the Calman recommendations not on the statute book by the 2011 elections, but won’t be enacted in time for the 2015 Holyrood elections. Even if they have been passed by then, the new powers may well not be available for some years, given the time HM Revenue & Customs and private employers operating the PAYE system will need to adjust to them.
There are two grave dangers for the Tories here. First, they’re assuming that the coming cuts in public spending won’t have serious implications for Scottish opinion toward the Union (discussed previously HERE). Second, they assume that there will be no significant damage done to the Union by delaying action on Calman. (That was earlier discussed HERE.) Each assumption is highly debatable. This is a high-risk strategy for the Conservatives to take. Time may not, in fact, be on their side.