Ben O’Keeffe explains why the UK’s changing constitution makes Stephen Crabb’s shot at the UK’s top job increasingly difficult.
It now seems obligatory for all journalists to follow the name Stephen Crabb with the phrase, “a potential successor as Conservative Party Leader”. The furore following his recent appointment as Work and Pensions Secretary has led to the UK media convincing themselves that the rising stock of Crabb means he is Conservative leader in waiting.
But, I’m not so sure his path to the top of the Tory tree (you know, like the logo) is as likelyas we are being led to believe, or at all politically possible.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
He is popular. Crabb hasn’t upset any of the major players in Westminster and although close to the PM, seems to be comfortable moving between the various factions of the Conservative Party.
Although over the last few months his legacy as Welsh Secretary has been looking increasingly precarious as he struggles with the new devolution settlement for Wales, he’s seen to have done a pretty good job overall while in Tŷ Gwydyr. Regardless, he has been somewhat rescued from any association with the faltering Wales Bill, as his move to the Department for Work and Pensions will make arguing with Carwyn about a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction a distant memory.
He also inherited a department on the brink of implosion. But again, despite it being very early days, he seems to be rolling with the punches. His appointment was met with almost universal praise by other Tories and the media alike, and his first act in his new job was to do away with the widely condemned cuts to Personal Independence Payments.
Crabb has a back story that busts Tory stereotypes too. From humble beginnings on a council estate in Pembrokeshire he moved to London, where he worked in the charity sector.
Seems like a shoe-in for the next Tory leader, right? I’m not so sure.
The destruction of his natural Crabb-itat
Crabb’s chances of Tory party leadership look to be scuppered by the UK’s increasingly fragmented constitutional arrangement.
Although they have been very cautious in using it thus far, the new English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) procedure in Westminster is going to restrict the effectiveness of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs in the legislative process.
As the name would indicate, EVEL effectively ensures English MPs are the only ones voting on legislation that is exclusively relevant to England. There is also a procedure which allows Welsh MPs to join in on Welsh and English only legislation.
It was introduced to try and appease those who felt that MPs from the devolved nations were unfairly able to vote on matters affecting England; whilst English MPs couldn’t vote on a range of matters in the devolved nations.
At the moment EVEL has only been used a handful of times, but as we see greater devolution, the number of areas in which EVEL is relevant is going to increase. Equally as the EVEL process is refined and becomes more familiar it will surely be used more readily.
And herein lies the problem. Having a UK party leader or PM setting a legislative agenda on which swathes of it s/he cannot vote is inconvenient at best.
Even if the EVEL process doesn’t become a mainstay in the journey of every piece of legislation, having a leader that couldn’t vote on significant bits of his party’s proposals affords the opposition some potent ammunition.
Think about it, having Crabb stand up in the Commons as a Tory leader and talk about the NHS when it is completely devolved will inevitably lead to a fair few snorts of derision from his own backbenchers, never mind those on the opposite side of the House.
Even if Conservative party membership and whoever else likes the look of Crabb – or for that matter any non-English MP – as their leader, it would tactically be very difficult to sustain a leader whose party seems so keen to restrict the power of MPs from the devolved nations.
Crabb’s opposite number and old Wales Office adversary Owen Smith is also touted for great things, but he will surely come up against the same barriers. That said, the Tories did of course instigate EVEL, so Crabb might be marginally more up against it.
This does raise the question of whether we will ever see another PM or UK party leader from a devolved nation ever again? Right now, it doesn’t look likely.