Open Europe Blog

Unlikely to care if her speech is amended – but will anyone else?

Politicians do not as a rule like other politicians amending their speeches especially after they have been delivered. The Queen is not a politician and is usually spared this indignity – but not if one group of (mostly Conservative) MPs have their way. Although, strictly speaking, the MPs have not tried to amend the speech per se, they merely tabled a motion to “express regret” that it did not include legislation for an EU referendum.

This is unlikely to upset the Queen, she will not have had any personal commitment to the political mush written for her by Number 10 (in case any non-UK readers were confused). The amendment states that the House:

“respectfully regrets that an EU referendum bill was not included in the Queen’s Speech”.

This means that even if passed by a majority of MPs, it wouldn’t actually force the Government to table a bill. So what’s the point? John Baron, one of the MPs tabling the amendment, said the objective is to show that:

“there is a large body of opinion inside and outside this place that believes that legislation is right for a EU referendum.”

This will no doubt make the ‘ditch the EU’ story run for another week, but the problem for those who genuinely want to legislate for a referendum in this parliament is that even the early referendum enthusiasts all want different things. Tory MPs who have put their names to it have several aims: legislation enshrining Cameron’s 2017 referendum, a mandating referendum to enable re-negotiation, or most simply a straight in/out referendum now (though many oppose this on the basis that it would generate an In vote and thereby kill the issue – and any prospects for substantial reform – for a decade or more).

So this vote is unlikely to achieve much since it suffers from a lack of political  focus. It seeks to be all things to all people.

However, this is not to say that from a Tory point of view, there aren’t any benefits from such a ‘stunt vote’ on a referendum of some sort (we’ve looked at the different options here). It could demonstrate that David Cameron can be trusted to keep his word – no good making a popular promise if people don’t believe you. The second attraction for the Conservatives is that in the 2015 general election, they could use the vote both to target specific Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs who vote against, and also as a shield when faced with a buoyant UKIP threat.

But again, the amendment tabled today won’t achieve any of that.

There are, however, more clever routes. For the stunt to work, it probably will have to be included in draft legislation that is going somewhere – and with sharper wording. There are two ways. First, a Private Members ballot: this is basically a giant raffle where MPs put in requests for all kinds of stuff. If this is successful, an MP could chose to put forward a referendum, possibly just cutting-and-pasting the draft legislation that the Conservative leadership has promised to publish before the election (but not put to the vote). Absent a successful ballot MP-led legislation has virtually zero chance to succeed. The other way they could achieve a vote is to table an amendment to another EU-related Bill. Here, MPs could be exceptionally creative. There’s one coming up:

European Union (Approvals) Bill: will provide Parliamentary approval under the European Union Act 2011 for ministers to vote in favour of various proposals in Brussels: Pericles (anti-euro counterfeiting); Europe for Citizens (EU civic integration); and EU Archives (formalising the depositing of EU documents in an archive).

If the draft legislation is thought to be general enough, it’s conceivable that the clerks (who will ultimately decide whether the amendment is allowed) could allow an MP to add an amendment calling for a referendum. There could also be other legislation, such as on the EU budget.

Given that even if passed next week’s amendment is non-binding, and that its vagueness allows people to vote in favour for a variety of reasons, we are not sure how much this initiative will actually achieve.

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