Some Tories are all aquiver today after the Prime Minister’s radio hint yesterday that he might be prepared to introduce an EU referendum bill in this parliament after all. Here are David Cameron’s words on yesterday’s World at One that are supposed to set your heart pounding:
‘I think we need to demonstrate absolutely that we are serious about this referendum; we’ve said we’re going to hold it, we’ve said it’s going to be an in-out referendum, we’ve set a date by which it must be held. I look forward to publishing a bill, to getting support for it, to doing everything I can to show to people at the next election there will be a real choice: if you want a party that’s going to reform the European Union and Britain’s place in it, and then give you a proper in-out choice, there only is one option – that is the Conservative party. So anything we can do to strengthen that offer, as it were, I’m prepared to consider. I think the most important thing is just to go around explaining to people this very carefully thought through and absolutely right for Britain, right for Europe, policy.’
Given the 100 backbenchers who signed John Baron’s recent letter calling for legislation had timed their missive so that it landed on the PM’s doormat in plenty of time before the Queen’s Speech negotiations, some are excitedly wondering whether this means Her Majesty will announce this Bill next week when she opens Parliament.
But speaking to Downing Street sources today, I gather that this isn’t any more of a push towards legislation than the hint the PM offered his party when it met recently. Those noises he made then about the benefits of legislation were no different, I’m told, from the radio noises he made yesterday. And while there is an appreciation in Downing Street of the argument that losing the vote on the bill would be of enormous benefit to the Conservatives, the chances of that bill ever making it as far as a vote are made considerably slimmer by the reality of Coalition. A source close to the Prime Minister tells me:
‘He doesn’t object in principle, but there is a large practical obstacle, and we have this pledge now for an In/Out referendum if David Cameron is re-elected, which is something we should be selling on the doorstep.’
The problem is that the Tories worry that even before a dramatic Commons face-off, the Lib Dems wouldn’t sign off on such a bill. They’re right: Lib Dem sources tell me they wouldn’t allow the legislation through the backroom negotiations, although they appreciate that this is what one calls ‘tummy-tickling’ by the Prime Minister. And they don’t think there’s a way of introducing legislation that part of the government has refused to sign up to, unless this has already been set in stone by the Coalition Agreement. A Lib Dem source says to me:
‘If you are going to start saying well the different parties in the Coalition can now bring forward any bills they like, then enjoy the mansion tax and 50p votes. That sort of thing would be of no benefit to either party in the Coalition or to the government.’
If there is a way to get the legislation into Parliament, then there might be a chance the Tories would try to support it by trying to give it time, although my sources from both parties wouldn’t comment on hypothetical situations like this.
But this isn’t all that hypothetical when John Baron has already told Coffee House that if he and colleagues have no success through official routes, they will be ‘looking for all opportunities to raise this on the floor of the House’. And the Prime Minister might have been trying to tickle them a little with his radio interview, but he hasn’t responded to their letter yet, and the meeting that Baron is trying to arrange hasn’t happened yet, either. So Tory backbenchers might feel that if they hear no more than the same noises from the Prime Minister in the next few weeks, they’ll do their own thing, possibly using a Private Member’s Bill, or backbench business debates, or amendments to existing legislation. But the legendary EU referendum bill isn’t on its way into Parliament any time soon.
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