English home rule: Cameron U-turn leaves Miliband exposed

Sometimes U-turns are well worth it. The prime minister has dropped his insistence on linking Scotland's package of post-referendum devolution to comparable changes in England. On paper it should be a humiliating move. Right now, it looks like a masterstroke.

David Cameron couldn't have been any clearer. On Friday he made clear that he wanted the separate-but-related issue of stopping Scottish MPs voting on English-only issues could only go ahead if it took place "in tandem with, and at the same pace, as the settlement for Scotland".

It seemed understandable enough. A poll for the Mail on Sunday yesterday made clear that middle England backed him. So did disgruntled Tory backbenchers and even several senior Cabinet ministers, who made clear they were determined to get something out of this redistribution of power. With the whole of Tory England behind him, Cameron looked set to continue the standoff indefinitely.

But the whole thing stank. It looked like a cynical attempt to deny Ed Miliband his cohort of around 40 Scottish MPs which might just make a decisive difference after the general election. This was blatant political opportunism. The reporting of many of the national newspapers, which have sought to place all the pressure on Miliband for going on the defensive rather than Cameron for going on the offensive, was among their most egregious of recent years.

It looked like the kind of standoff that could, in a worst-case scenario, end up in the collapse of the Westminster leaders' pledge to Scottish voters. Such an outcome would be disastrous for our democracy, and probably lead to Scottish independence within the decade. What Cameron needed to do was find a way out that allowed him to keep the moral high ground, while piling maximum pressure on Miliband.

He has found it. A No 10 source has told the Times the Scottish package "will happen, come what may, no ifs, no buts – it is not conditional on anything". Tory MPs, who met with Cameron at Chequers yesterday and will do so again today, are to be placated with the promise of a separate vote on English devolution before the general election. The two processes are not so much proceeding "in tandem" as on two bikes travelling next to each other. Just because one crashes into a ditch no longer means the other goes with it.

This is clever stuff. It has the added bonus of utterly derailing Miliband's pre-election party conference, which has been bounced off the top of the news agenda by this ongoing constitutional crisis.

The Tories are retreating to the same old tactic they're using on another issue which has something to do with a referendum. Bob Neill's private member's bill on the EU referendum is designed to be a win-win scenario for the Conservatives. Either they guarantee the in-out poll in law, or they get to force Labour's hand by obliging the opposition to come out and block it.

Exactly the same will happen when the vote on English devolution comes before the Commons. Cameron's cynicism has proved short-lived; by thinking again he largely exonerates himself from the shameless jockeying for partisan advantage. Instead that charge now falls exclusively on Miliband's head. The leader of the opposition is only holding up English devolution because of fear that doing so will hand the Tories a permanent, in-built advantage.

Perhaps he needs to consider stepping back from the brink, too. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, is already pressuring his party leader to learn to let go.

He told the Guardian:

"We have to sound confident that we can win a majority in England, and are not going to rely on a Scottish bloc to get us over the line. We are right to be confident – we won a majority of seats in England in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Historically Labour has won without Scotland, and can do so again. This debate shall ensure we redouble our efforts to take the fight to middle England seats."

Miliband is probably falling into the partisan-minded trap that governs all calculations about constitutional change. Whether on party funding, or Lords reform, or the alternative vote (remember that?) Labour has always been guided by its private assessment of the potential risks or benefits of any alteration to the rules of the game.

He needs to realise that this time it's different. The Scottish independence referendum has changed Britain, not just Scotland. It is heralding the biggest power shift in the way Britain runs itself in many, many decades. Those who set themselves up as enemies of it become anti-democratic, and will be pilloried accordingly.