There are a range of views in Parliament when it comes to an EU referendum: some want one now, others one later, many resist having one at all. When I began the process of bringing forward my Private Member’s Bill, which legislates for a referendum to be held before the end of 2017, I had to take this landscape into account.
Private Member’s Bills are fragile creatures, prone to fall at the merest whim of Parliamentary procedural opposition. It is, more often than not, the act of frustrating them so that they run out of time rather than direct opposition that kills the more interesting and engaging proposals. This means many are bland and inoffensive, drafted to ensure no one would choose to challenge them rather than with a view to changing the world. That is not to say great things have not been done by MPs through this route, just that the chances are slim and the safer course is to stick with dull and unexciting efforts.
An EU Referendum Bill is far from dull. We have already seen attempts by Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs to talk out the second reading and to frustrate its passage through the committee stage. Despite this the Bill has gone further than many commentators predicted it ever could, thanks in no small part to the backing of the entire Parliamentary Conservative Party, from the Prime Minister down.
We return for the report stage on 8th November and Conservative MPs have cleared their diaries to attend on Fridays in order to ensure we again give my Bill the best possible chance. There will be amendments galore tabled by Labour and the Lib Dems, each one designed to drag out the debate and lower the chances of ultimate success. We now also have the prospect of amendments proposed by Conservative MPs. The most dangerous proposal is floated in the Mail on Sunday today and would set a date in October 2014 for the referendum to be held. The Bill currently requires a referendum before the end of 2017, allowing time for the government to renegotiate our relationship with the EU before putting it to the public. I support this policy; it is sensible to secure the best possible deal so that, however people then vote, we can ensure we benefit from the process. We must also remember that the Euro crisis is not yet over and we need to understand what the post-crisis EU will look like if we are to make an informed choice.
An attempt to force an earlier referendum does have some superficial appeal, even if timing it to be in the same year as the Scottish referendum seems bizarre and ill conceived. The reality though is that all such an amendment will do is make the Bill’s success less likely.
So far the Bill has enjoyed unanimous support when it has actually been put to a vote. In truth Labour and the he Lib Dems abstained at second reading, despite their opposition, because even they know that to directly vote against a referendum would be politically disastrous as we head towards next year’s European elections. We need to build as broad a consensus in favour of the Bill and the principle of a referendum as we can, including amongst MPs from other parties. If we weaken this resolve we reduce the moral strength to argue that the House of a Lords must not stop it. Instead of the Lords setting themselves against the will of the elected chamber they could legitimately point to every instance of divided opinion and use it to justify killing the Bill when it reaches them.
Additionally, as already discussed, time is the Bills greatest enemy. Every selected amendment will need to be debated and one that spurs Conservative MPs to speak – such as one they have sponsored- will take all the longer to get through. We need to deal with the amendments to the Bill in good time, so that we maximise the chances of passing it through the Commons with sufficient length of Parliamentary session remaining for the Lords to consider it. If we spend half a day debating an amendment a minority of Conservatives have backed we lose somewhere in the region of a sixth of our available time. This may well come down down the the wire and we cannot afford such indulgences.
I can understand the impulse to amend by some of my colleagues. Many care passionately about this issue and I do not doubt their sincerity or good intentions. I must though ask again that MPs who want a referendum resist any urge to amend my Bill. This is our best chance to pass a law requiring a referendum. Success will shift the debate decisively and guarantee us our say, failure because of the hubris of otherwise well meaning Eurosceptics would be a calamity.
I will be doing everything I can to get this Bill through. That means I will be resisting amendments, no matter how enticing they might be. I need my colleagues to support me.