James Wharton, the Tory MP leading the EU referendum bill through the House of Commons, has become something of a minor celebrity in the party, with admiring young things approaching him at the Conservative conference last week as though he were a minister of Ken Clarke’s standing, not a backbencher. His performance with the legislation so far suggests that he is destined for great things, but he’s currently rather preoccupied with the attempt by one of his backbench colleagues, the even more ambitious Adam Afriyie, to sabotage the bill.
Afriyie writes in the Mail on Sunday that he is tabling an amendment to the legislation calling for a referendum on 23 October next year. He writes:
‘But why 2014? The Prime Minister says we are going to have an EU referendum in 2017. Why not just wait until then?
‘The fact is, the British people are not convinced there will be a referendum at all if we wait until after the next General Election. So many things can change.
‘They don’t understand why we can’t have one right away – and that makes them suspicious. Many people think delaying the vote is just a tactic to allow all the political leaders to kick the can even further down the road.’
It was inevitable that someone would table an amendment along these lines, and I’ve written before about the danger this could pose to Tory unity. Wharton himself knows that, and tells me:
‘All amendments are wrecking amendments: we’ve told Tory MPs this several times. It would not be helpful to do this.’
The question is whether Afriyie has enough currency in the party to cause the sorts of splits that he’s hoping for – this isn’t just about the bill but about an attempt to drive a wedge into the currently rather peaceful mood in the party. I have certainly detected some frustration with the Windsor MP among his former allies in recent months. Number 10 will be hoping that this troublesome MP has jumped the shark and that Conservative MPs see greater value in using this legislation to goad Labour and the Lib Dems over their referendum position than in debating when to hold the referendum. They have certainly enjoyed doing that up to this point, but Europe has a funny effect on Conservative behaviour at the best of times.