As trailed on Coffee House yesterday, MPs in favour of an EU referendum met today to discuss how to advance James Wharton’s private member’s bill and how to pressure Labour and the Lib Dems to change their stance on the issue. I hear colleagues from all parties agreed with Wharton’s warning that amendments in the Commons could endanger the Bill, while the Stockton South MP also suggested that though trouble looms in the Lords, any attempts to wreck the legislation there could provide a nice opportunity for a debate about the legitimacy of the Upper Chamber turning down legislation sent up from the Commons.
As with gay marriage, dark mutterings about what could happen to this Bill once it reaches the Lords could prove unfounded. The Upper Chamber’s focus is more often on self-preservation, and to reject this Bill could be seen as doubly anti-democratic as not only would they be rejecting Commons legislation, but they would also be preventing the British people from being given a vote on an issue. The House of Lords can prove remarkably non-confrontational at times, no matter how many big beasts stalk its chamber.
This would of course have more strength if Labour or the Lib Dems decided to change their mind on the bill before MPs vote on it again in November, which is unlikely. But it would also offer the amusing spectacle of Tory MPs who vehemently opposed Lords reform last year sounding off about the antics of peers who want to scupper referendum legislation.
John Hemming, the only Lib Dem who publicly supports a referendum, also spoke, telling colleagues that he thought the bill itself was putting pressure on his party to re-think its current stance on whether to offer a vote on the EU, rather than any internal discussion the party might have been having anyway. So while the party publicly says it is only interested in jobs and growth rather than Tory stunts, privately there is greater concern among its MPs. And the line about this being a stunt will grow weaker the longer this goes on for, as the question of ‘well, what would your party do’ will become more and more difficult for the Lib Dems to answer, regardless of whether or not they back the private member’s bill.
But while Wharton is comfortable with his efforts to bring MPs from other parties on board, it looks as though very few eurosceptic Labour MPs are going to bother to turn up on Friday. As I blogged earlier this week, it would be helpful for Wharton to focus on attracting the support of more colleagues from other parties once Friday’s jamboree is over.