What next for the EU Referendum Bill?

Last Friday peers landed a couple of heavy blows to the EU Referendum Bill - but not yet fatal ones.

They passed two amendments - on the wording of the referendum question and on the need for an impact statement on leaving the EU - and in the Commons no less a procedural expert than Bill Cash asked if the bill was now a dead parrot.

It's not quite pushing up the daisies yet, but nor is it far from shuffling off its mortal coil and joining the Choir Invisible.

The passing of amendments means that the bill now has to go back to the Commons, which makes the timing extremely tight, and near-impossible if the Commons rejects the amendments and sends it back to their Lordships, and thereby triggers a round of parliamentary ping-pong between the two Houses.

But I don't think either of these amendments are, of themselves, unacceptable to the Conservative Party.

They could easily decide to accept them, if that were the price of keeping their bill alive.

What would be much more troublesome would be the passage of an amendment they couldn't live with - and they will have to ward off several such this week, or at the subsequent report stage.

There are several Tam Dalyell-style amendments requiring a minimum percentage of the electorate - 25% or 40%, or 50% - must vote, or the referendum result will not be binding.

There are amendments on allowing British expats in EU countries to vote, on votes for 16-year-olds, an on making the referendum an all-postal ballot.

Some of these would be very difficult for the bill's backers to swallow, but would be very difficult to remove before time ran out.

But, leaving that possibility aside for a moment, suppose the committee stage concludes on Friday; when do peers move on to report stage?

Normally, there would be a two week gap between the end of committee stage and the start of report…

But that would take us to February 14th, when peers will be holding their half-term break.

In fact the next available sitting day on the calendar is February 28th, which is also the last day set aside for the Commons to deal with private members' bills - which would leave this bill some way from the finishing line.

The other alternative is to set aside the Lords' usual conventions and take report stage on February 7th, when according to the forward calendar of Lords business, "the House may sit."

This would be controversial - there have already been pungent complaints that this bill is being treated more favourably than other private members legislation, and the peers' procedural bible, the Companion to the Standing Orders, says that the normal timescales should not be reduced except for a bill of no great length and complexity.

To be sure, the EU Referendum Bill is not very long, but its critics certainly regard it as complex.

They would certainly squawk if the report stage was allowed to start early.

And in the Lords this is no pettifogging argument; peers regard proper procedure as a very important matter and they tend to stand by their established conventions even at moments of great pressure.

In particular they don't like being rushed just to meet some temporary political imperative.

So not only must the backers of a referendum avoid some fatal amendment, they must also chivvy the bill through at a faster-than-usual pace, and hold report stage on February 7th.

Then they have to get the bill through third reading - normally a minimum of three days after report stage.

Again this wold need to be inserted into the legislative schedule, and it's not certain that the Lib Dem wing of the government would permit this - but for once the procedural rules help the backers of the bill and the final debate wouldn't absolutely have to be on a Friday.

It might be shoehorned in elsewhere, if they consent.

Then a further hurdle awaits.

Unlike the Commons, where third reading has become a rather perfunctory ritual, the Lords can debate amendments at this stage, so there might be a last ditch attempt to cause trouble.

It is at least conceivable, then, that the bill could make it to third reading in the Lords and go back to the Commons in time to meet that final deadline of February 28th - the last day set down for private members' business…

Then MPs would have to decide whether to accept or reject the amendments made by their Lordships.

This takes us back to the point about the two amendments made so far; they're clearly not fatal to the purposes behind the bill.

The real problem would come if some unacceptable (to the Conservatives) changes were made, because even if the Commons overturned them, the Lords could kill the bill be refusing to accept that, or by offering different changes in lieu.

There would be no time left for MPs to play another round of that parliamentary ping pong.

But that could simply clear the way for a re-run of the whole exercise in the final session of this Parliament - with the theatrics around the possible use of the Parliament Act to force the bill into law over the objections of the House of Lords taking place in the run-up to the next election, which Conservative might rather fancy.