By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
The details of Commons manoevering on contentious bills are swiftly forgotten. It is only a few months since the House of Lords Reform Bill row, but some will already have forgotten that it wasn't defeated on the floor of the House. Rather, the Government calculated that it would lose a vote on the programme motion for the bill: such motions set the timetable for its debate at committee and report stage. If the programme motion had gone down, the Commons could have been clogged up for months with discussion of the bill that the Whips might not have been able to control. So it was pulled.
I have spoken during the last few days to three sources who insist that the same-sex marriage bill could meet the same fate. One is a senior Conservative backbench opponent of the measure. The other is a well-placed Government Minister.
Both agree that David Cameron and the bill's supporters want to get it on the statute book as soon as possible. They would like to see its Tory opponents confronted and defeated in public…but at the same time they don't want to see them obtain large-scale media coverage. This means avoiding at all costs a committee stage held on the floor of the Commons – or at least one that goes on for a long time and crowds out other business. Ideally, the bill's supporters would like to see committee stage held in a room off the Committee corridor, where debate can quietly be guillotined and media coverage will be less intense.
The bill's opponents will aim for the opposite – a committee stage on the Commons floor ("a committee of the whole House") that goes on for as long as possible – enabling them to demonstrate that there is no popular or other mandate for the bill, that it hasn't been properly thought through, and that it will gain the Government no demonstrable benefit. In the Parliamentary game of bluff and counter-bluff over the bill, it is impossible to know how many Conservative opponents it has. They have briefed that there are over 120, but it is impossible to be sure.
The position of Labour's front bench is thus crucial. It has confirmed that Labour MPs, like the Conservatives, will have a free vote on the bill. (Ed Miliband wanted originally to whip them in favour of it, but was frightened off by possible front-bench resignations.) That, however, will apply to second reading, the committee and report stages, and third reading. It is most unlikely to apply to the programme motion, which the Government will propose. Were Miliband to throw his weight against it, the combined number of Labour MPs (259) plus Tory rebels (let's presume this is whittled down to 100 or so) would be enough to sink the programme.
In such circumstances, Cameron, George Osborne and the bill's main backers might conclude that they had no option to withdraw it, since the Government could not face a committee of the whole House. In other words, the Lords Bill debacle would happen all over again.
I am doubtful whether all this will happen, for three main reasons. First, the same-sex marriage Bill isn't a constitutional bill, and therefore isn't entitled to almost unlimited debate on the floor of the House, as the Lords Reform Bill arguably was. Second, the Conservative opponents of the bill. knowing this, may reach a deal with the Whips on the programme. Finally, there's no guarantee that Labour will threaten to vote against it. For while some Labour strategists would like nothing better than to humiliate the Government again, as over the Lords, other will not want to have Stonewall and others accuse Labour of being willing to block same-sex marriage.
So there it is. Will the Government withdraw the bill for fear of losing a vote on the programme? On balance, I think not. But could it happen? Yes, it could.