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PM seeks West Lothian 'solution'

David Cameron has boldly declared his determination to find a "decisive" solution to the West Lothian question.

But it is an ambition that might have been described by fictional mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby as "courageous".

The issue of whether MPs should be able to vote on matters that do not affect their constituents goes back nearly 130 years, when William Gladstone raised it during a debate on Irish Home Rule.

The dilemma became known as the "West Lothian question" after the Labour MP for the seat, Tam Dalyell, highlighted it during a debate on Scottish devolution in 1977.

But despite significant powers being handed to the Scottish parliament and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland since 1997, there has been no consensus on reforms for Westminster.

Labour's former Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine pithily summed up the attitude of many in his party when he quipped that the best answer to the West Lothian question was not to ask it.

However, Conservatives - who traditionally hold sway in England - have been growing increasingly militant on the topic.

As early as 1999 William Hague, then party leader, was insisting that "English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws".

Tory frustration intensified when Scottish votes were decisive in pushing through key Labour government policies such as student tuition fees - even though they did not apply north of the border.

A Conservative policy group headed by former chancellor Ken Clarke proposed in 2008 that Scottish MPs should be excluded from line-by-line consideration of Bills that do not affect them - although it stopped short of suggesting they should be barred from voting on the final legislation.

Former Clerk of the House of Commons Sir William McKay came forward with similar limited procedural changes last year after being commissioned by the coalition.

Ministers would be obliged to note whether there was an English majority for England-only legislation, but a lack of such a majority would not automatically kill the measures.

The simmering debate has been brought to boiling point by the pledge of more devolution for Scotland, made as Westminster leaders battled to prevent a Yes vote in the referendum.

While Mr Cameron has hinted he wants to bar Scots MPs from voting on England-only laws as part of wider constitutional reforms, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is believed to favour less dramatic change along the lines of the McKay report.

Neither position is likely to be enough to satisfy Tory backbenchers - many of whom support demands for a separate English parliament.

The "raw deal" being handed to England is also regarded as playing well on the doorstep.

By setting a deadline of January for draft legislation to be drawn up, Mr Cameron has effectively ensured his troops will have the opportunity to attack Labour on the subject at next May's general election if a deal is not done.

For his part, Ed Miliband has insisted he will "look at" any proposals Mr Cameron brings forward.

But during the referendum campaign former Prime Minister Gordon Brown set the tone for many in the party by suggesting that England's relative size meant it did not need safeguards against meddling by other parts of the UK.

There are also real concerns about creating two "classes" of MP and potentially adding huge complexity to government that could render it almost incomprehensible to the public.

The stakes for Mr Miliband in the coming negotiations are perhaps higher than for any of his Westminster counterparts.

Labour's reliance on its usual quota of 40 or so Scottish MPs to govern can be overstated - Tony Blair would still have enjoyed comfortable majorities in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

But polls suggest that Mr Miliband cannot hope for more than a slender majority next May.

If Scottish MPs were barred from voting on issues that had been devolved north of the border, a Labour government could suddenly find itself unable to get key elements of a Budget package through the Commons.

The No vote may have killed off Scottish independence for now, but it seems the constitutional upheaval in the UK could be just beginning.

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