Open Europe Blog

Is David Cameron preparing to go nuclear?
The Telegraph reported yesterday that David Cameron has told his MPs that he will use the Parliament Act to force through James Wharton’s Private members Bill for an EU Referendum? Inevitably described as his ‘nuclear option’.

Assuming their Lordships reject the EU referendum, which given the number of former Commission employees, diplomats, MEPs and quangocrats in their noble ranks must be a possibility, how will this work?

Firstly, the Parliament Act, as amended in 1949, means that a Bill that has been rejected twice in consecutive sessions of Parliament by the Lords, should be presented to Her Majesty for approval whose official will by convention say or attach the wording “Le Reyne Le Veult” – to express, in Norman French, that the Queen will’s it  – in this case a referendum on EU membership.

Reading the legislation there are a few pitfalls. The Bill needs to be presented in exactly the same form in the next session of Parliament. This will require the same rigmarole as this time, a new Conservative backbench MP taking up the Bill in backbench time, and further votes which will require another abstention by the majority of Labour MPs.

Once that is done two remaining questions remain. Firstly, can you Parliament Act a private members Bill? And if so does the Coalition Government, or a Government Minister need to assent? Secondly, can the Conservatives force it through before the 2015 General election?

Can you Parliament Act a private member’s Bill?
Under the legislation the Act refers to ‘Public Bills’ and does not specify they have to be ‘Government’ Bills. It also states a Bill “shall, on its rejection for the second time by the House of Lords.. be presented to His Majesty and become an Act of Parliament on the Royal Assent.” So no need for Government approval.

Will there be enough time?
The Current session runs until May when the Bill’s second session will start. That will give the Conservatives a year to get it through the Commons and into the Lords before the election. If it is still in the Lords when the general election is called in May 2015, it could be Parliament Acted as one of Parliament’s last acts before it is dissolved for the election.

What if the Lords run out of time but do not reject it?
The Current session of Parliament runs until May, so it is possible the Lords will still be discussing it at that point. In this case the Bill is treated as rejected (s.2(3)). The same would apply if it is still in Parliament in 2015.

Could John Bercow MP – the Common’s speaker – have a role?
The legislation states that a certificate is required on the Bill to state the parliament Act has been complied with. It states a “certificate of the Speaker of the House of Commons signed by him that the provisions of this section have been duly complied with” is needed. It would be highly controversial for him not to comply but…

Lastly, if all these things happen what will it actually mean? As we have said before, it will certainly be symbolic and will have obvious political benefits for the Conservatives, but could it bind a potential Labour Government? Well probably not, and in any event even if it becomes law it would require further votes after the election. So important and symbolic yes but if this Bill becomes an Act it will not make a referendum a certainty.

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