UK Politics

The story behind the fall of the EU referendum bill

David Cameron leaving Downing Street Image copyright AP
Image caption David Cameron says he is disappointed at the failure of the bill but the Lib Dems question his motives

It was looking like second time lucky for the Bill that would have enshrined in law a 2017 referendum on the UK's membership of the EU.

Having failed to pass in the last parliamentary session under the stewardship of Conservative MP James Wharton, fellow Tory backbencher Bob Neill championed the EU Referendum Bill this time round.

But the Bill was dealt a fatal blow on Tuesday as the Liberal Democrats withdrew their support, having failed to get Tory backing for Lib Dem MP Andrew George's Affordable Homes Bill.

This Bill would have introduced three new exemptions to the housing benefit cuts (known to critics as the bedroom tax) which ministers say are necessary to reduce "spare room subsidies".

Both parties needed the support of the other to pass a "money resolution" for each Bill, which is usually standard practice.

But the Conservatives also wanted their EU Referendum Bill to be given government time, something the Lib Dems did not think was fair. The result was the deal died, with the Conservatives accusing their coalition partners of scuppering their EU referendum proposals and "weakening Britain's hand in Europe."

This type of coalition in-fighting is by no means a one-off.

In 2012, the Lib Dems refused to back their partners over boundary changes after the Tories withheld their support from Nick Clegg's House of Lords reform plan.

The setting is different this time, with the issues all the most controversial and with the general election creeping ever closer.

Some Lib Dems believe the Tories deliberately chose to sacrifice the EU Referendum Bill by making unreasonable demands about how much parliamentary time it should receive.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Conservatives say they are the only party capable of delivering a referendum in the next Parliament

Lib Dem deputy leader Sir Malcolm Bruce said the Tories had "folded like a cheap deckchair and are trying to make us take the blame by adding ridiculous conditions they knew we would not and could not accept".

He added: "The only logical conclusion that can be reached is that the Tories don't really want their Bill to pass and are trying to set the Lib Dems up as the scapegoats."

The Tories believe the blame for the Bill's failure lies very much with their coalition partners.

Bob Neill said: "The Lib Dems have killed off our chances of putting into law, this side of an election, an in-out EU referendum by 2017. They didn't have the guts to vote against an EU referendum in the House of Commons. Instead they have used Westminster tricks to try to deny the British people a say on their membership of the EU."

Whichever way you look at it, however, the result is the same: there will be no law passed before the general election committing the UK to holding a referendum on membership of the EU.

Image caption Andrew George's housing bill is also likely to be a victim of coalition infighting

And neither will there be a law reviewing and making changes to the under-occupation deduction from housing benefit.

The Conservatives could be said to have lost out more from this deadlock in the sense that their bill stood a far greater chance of passing and the bill would have added extra proof of their commitment to holding an EU referendum.

The Lib Dems, too, will mourn the loss of the Affordable Homes Bill. It may have given some of their MPs the chance to atone themselves, in the eyes of their critics, for voting in favour of the government's housing benefit changes.

But then again, the public spat has allowed both parties to get their distinctive message across to the public.

It certainly gives fresh insight into the deals being struck - or not - as the coalition enters its last few months of life.

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