Private members bill chicken

What's more important to Conservative backbenchers?

Getting their referendum on Britain's EU membership or stopping a bill which would enshrine in law a commitment for the UK to devote 0.7 per cent of its national income to international aid?

An amusing - and high stakes - game of Private members Bill chicken is shaping up in the Commons, thanks to the way the cards fell in this year's annual ballot for the right to bring in a bill.

The key point is that Bob Neill, the Conservative ex-minister, who will be bringing in the referendum bill, was third in the ballot. Above him came two Lib Dems, Andrew George and Michael Moore, and their bills get first dibs on the available debating slots.

And now, Mr Moore, the former Scottish Secretary, has decided to use his bill to require the UK to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income on official development assistance - an idea which does not exactly find favour on the Tory backbenches, but which Labour will probably support. (This Lib-Lab alliance will be sweet revenge for the Lib Dems on the Conservative backbenchers who lined up with Labour to defeat their objections to mandatory sentences for possession of a knife, a couple of weeks ago)

This is a problem for Mr Neill, because if his colleagues try to stop Mr Moore's bill by the normal method - a tidal wave of amendments at report stage - the effect may be to use up time which Mr Neill will need to get the Referendum Bill debated.

As I've blogged before, this time around, the game is to delay or amend the Referendum Bill in the Commons, because if it passes in the same form as its earlier incarnation, the James Wharton Bill from the 2013-14 session, it can be forced into law via the Parliament Act, regardless of what happens in the Lords.

So there's a clear incentive for Mr Neill and his party colleagues to ensure there's plenty of time available - and for his colleagues to swallow their objections to the Moore Bill.

Of course the flip side of that point is that there is a clear incentive for opponents of the Referendum Bill to spin out the debate on the Report Stage of the earlier measures - Mr Moore's bill and, perhaps, Andrew George's bill on affordable housing - to eat into the time available for Mr Neill.

The more time spent on the early bills in the list, the less time is left for the rest. I suspect that Mr George may not get his bill through its second reading debate - but with Labour support, Mr Moore should pass that hurdle, and then the fun will start.

If his bill gets through committee stage first, it will take priority over the Referendum Bill and have its report stage debate first….and this is the point which offers maximum opportunity for delay.

Remember that, without Labour ever officially opposing the earlier incarnation of the Referendum Bill, the James Wharton Bill, a small group of backbenchers kept debate going for three long days at report stage. They could certainly do the same to the Moore Bill.

I'm told the government is close to agreeing to back the Moore Bill, which, unusually for a Private Members Bill, has pretty serious financial implications, and it may be that the quid pro quo is that there are no shenanigans, at least from the Lib Dems, to keep the debate going longer than necessary. But that would not prevent much earnest debate by Labour MPs and vast rafts of "helpful" amendments from that quarter.

So eyes down for another intricate bout of Commons gamespersonship…. Because the next battle over the Referendum Bill may begin long before it reaches the floor of the House.

Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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