Second time lucky?
- 20 May 2014
- From the section UK Politics
You won't find the most controversial bill of 2014-15 in the Queen's Speech - because it will be a private members bill.
The Conservatives are pledged to re-run the James Wharton bill which attempted to legislate for an EU-membership referendum in 2017.
The annual ballot for the right to bring in a private member's bill is held on 12 June - and the top Tory on the resulting list will be under heavy pressure to bring a reincarnated Wharton bill before the Commons.
Given the credit Mr Wharton gained in party terms, it shouldn't require too much pressure, unless the MP concerned is one of the dwindling band of Tory Europhiles. But the lucky winner of this task can expect to devote several months to the cause.
The system works like this: the top seven MPs in the ballot get a guaranteed Second Reading debate for the bill of their choice, on one of the Friday sittings of the Commons set aside for this purpose.
The top MP in the ballot gets the first available debate, the runner-up the second, and so on.
So unless no Conservative is among the top seven members chosen by lot, the bill will be debated. (Incidentally it could be very bad news for any non-Tory MPs above the presenter of the EU Referendum Bill in the batting order - it may be considered necessary to kill off any such bills, by the time-honoured method of talking them out, or even by whipping Conservative MPs to attend and vote them down, because they would otherwise take priority - and time, as we will see, is of the essence.)
The second key point is that this bill has already been passed by the Commons - unopposed, in the end, on 29 November last year.
Any reincarnated version will be exactly the same, so that, if passed by the Commons, it can then be forced into law via the Parliament Act if it is bogged down, amended or even defeated in the House of Lords.
In such circumstances all that has to happen is that the Speaker certifies that the same bill has been passed twice by MPs, and it can be sent off to the Sovereign to be signed into law. (People tend to assume that there is some great ceremony requiring the Clerks to gather at midnight beneath a blasted oak, to call on the powers of darkness to invoke the Parliament Act, but in fact it's a pretty low key procedure.)
This is why the game will be rather different this time.
The Commons tactics of the Wharton Bill's opponents in 2013-14 were not about defeating it; Labour, in particular were very careful never to directly oppose the bill.
The strategic aim was to keep the bill in the Commons for as long as possible, thereby minimising the time available to debate it in the Lords.
So we had three very long days of Report Stage consideration, in which vast numbers of amendments had to be considered before the bill finally made it through.
Their Lordships had a day for Second Reading and two long days of Committee Stage debate, before it became obvious that the bill had become terminally bogged down and its backers folded.
This time round, what happens to the bill in the Lords will be essentially irrelevant. It will be passed if it makes it through the Commons unscathed.
So, for its opponents, the question becomes exactly how to scathe it?
In the last session Labour were wary of direct opposition, so unless there's been a change of heart, they probably won't seek to defeat the son-of-Wharton bill at Second Reading.
But if they succeed in passing an amendment - any amendment - the bill ceases to be the same measure and the Parliament Act becomes inapplicable.
So look out for a concerted attempt by Labour and the Lib Dems to change - I'd guess - the date for the proposed vote, probably at Report Stage.
Then the bill could be run into the sand in the Lords, and non-Conservatives politicians would not spend half the election campaign fending off questions about whether they would repeal the EU Referendum Act.
For the Conservatives this scenario would be annoying, but not a total disaster.
They would still have the grievance, and could claim that only a Tory majority can deliver a referendum, and it is worth remembering that the final act of the process would come in the run-up to the next election.