John Redwood writes on this site today to advocate a mandate referendum on the EU in this Parliament – a move that would require an Act to make it happen. John Baron continues to lead the campaign for a separate Act in this Parliament, which would write the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed into legislation. I will write about the arguments for and against both ideas in due course, but will for today limit myself to the implications which they have for the maintenance of the Coalition.
It might be that the Commons would vote for one of the two measures, or even both, because enough Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs would support them: it is arguable that Ed Miliband would not oppose the Baron initiative, in particular. But let's presume that Nick Clegg lines up against both bills (a reasonable presumption). In such circumstances, could Cameron whip Conservative MPs to go into one lobby if Liberal Democrat MPs were going into the other?
The question of whether the Prime Minister supports Redwood's or Baron's proposal (or both) thus turns out also to be a question about the future of the Coalition. Readers must decide for themselves whether it could work effectively were the two Parliamentary parties directed into different lobbies by their respective whips – and whether the Coalition is worth preserving. It's worth noting that the Coalition Agreement doesn't insist that the two parties vote together in all circumstances – for example, over tax breaks for marriage – and that the Liberal Democrats helped to enshrine it when they failed to support Jeremy Hunt.
My own answer is that the Coalition is worth preserving, and that while EU referendum bills might not bring it down, they would certainly strain it severely. This raises a further question: if the Coalition is worth preserving, how long should it last for? Again, readers must give decide for themselves, but my answer is that since it will effectively be inoperable for its final six months – or as good as – Cameron could loosen the whipping arrangements during that period.
It would probably be too late for a mandate referendum by then (mind you, I suppose one could be held on general election day itself), though there would certainly be time to enshrine the In/Out referendum in law. I would certainly like to see a series of initiatives from the backbenches, which Tory Ministers would support from the dispatch box – and, more often than not, in the lobbies. In that last six months, backbenchers could propose a tougher immigration cap, a tighter benefits cap, a British Bill of Rights, English votes for English laws – and so on. The alternative for David Cameron, at that stage, will be Parliamentary paralysis.