The Coalition is likely to be and look rudderless in its last six months, as its partners prepare for the 2015 election, and therefore increasingly go their own ways. I thus favour a loosening of whipping during that time, with Conservative backbenchers moving motions and bills that (hopefully) give a flavour of the Tory manifesto to come – a tighter benefits cap, withdrawal from the ECHR, a delay to the carbon price floor, a lower immigration limit, and so forth.
Conservative Ministers would be able to speak and, when appropriate, vote in favour of these measures. Enshrining the planned EU In/Out referendum in law would be one of them. I'm not convinced that it would greatly move voters, given the low salience of the E.U issue – but it would be a sensible measure, and were I still in the Commons I would happily vote for it. The risk to the unity and coherence of the Coalition – leading to lost votes from unimpressed voters – seems less to me during the final months of the Coalition than it would be were that loosening to take place now.
For this reason, I hope that the amendment to the Queen's Speech regretting the absence of a referendum bill isn't moved next week: it would be better for a simple bill to be moved during the final six months of the Parliament. But we are where we are – and David Cameron has, in effect, bowed to fate, shrugged his shoulders and conceded his Ministers a free vote in the event of one taking place. As Benedict Brogan points out this morning, the options for David Cameron are not to vote for the bill, which would divide him from much his party and many of his Ministers, or to vote for it, look like their prisoner – and, in all probability, lose the vote, and thus look weak.
These are bad options. But the least bad one is to cut through the calculations, and simply work out the right thing to do. The EU bill to which the amendment refers can suggest many things, as Mark Wallace pointed out yesterday on this site. But one of them, certainly, is the John Baron proposal to put the promised In/Out referendum on the statute book. The Prime Minister has already indicated to his backbenchers that he favours this in principle.
It follows that he should support the amendment in the lobbies if it is put to a vote. To say that the timing of such a move isn't perfect is an understatement. But it is the least worst option – and, as I say, the right thing to do.
11.45am Update The great Paul Waugh writes this morning that Cameron will be in America next week (so he won't be there to vote on his own Queen's Speech). That won't stop my media colleagues pursuing Conservative Cabinet Ministers over the weekend in order to ask them how they are going to vote. My strong sense is that they will be steered to vote for the amendment – in short, to criticise their own Queen's Speech in the lobbies.