Open Europe Blog

EU Referendum Bill rises again

The Conservative party’s attempt to force an EU Referendum in 2017 onto the statute book is back in the guise of Bob Neill’s Private Member’s Bill (remember James Wharton’s bill was killed of by the Lords back in January). Once again, the bill has passed at second reading stage in the House of Commons (283 MPs voted in favour and none were brave enough to vote against).

So what are its prospects for success this time around?

The Bill will now go to Committee stage where the best strategy for those who wish to scupper it (without been seen to be overtly doing so) will be to amend the bill in order to prevent it from being ‘parliament acted’ – something which will happen automatically if the Bill is rejected outright or is still stuck in the Lords by the time parliament is dissolved for the general election. Since the unsuccessful Bill has to be exactly the same on both occasions, if Labour and Lib Dem MPs manage to – for example – extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds as happened in the Scottish referendum, the Parliament Act could not be used. The exact make-up of the committee (will any pro-referendum Labour MPs be included?) could prove crucial.

Another problem is that unlike James Wharton – who topped the Private Members’ Bill ballot last time around – Bob Neill only came third, so his Bill is behind the two other PMBs in the parliamentary pecking order. Both are relatively contentious themselves – one seeks to fundamentally reform the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ and the other aims to enshrine the government’s to spend 0.7% of GDP in foreign aid – so the more time they spend in Committee stage, the longer it will take for Neill’s Bill to progress to that stage.

If however it does navigate its way through the Commons unamended, then it will be for the next UK Government to either hold the referendum as instructed, ignore the law or seek to reverse the legislation. Either way, it will have served its primary purpose – convincing a sceptical electorate that the Conservatives are serious about a referendum.

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