EU referendum debate: Five lessons learned for power and parliament

EU referendum debate has implications for many
EU referendum debate has implications for many

Here are some semi-connected points about the state of play after yesterday's EU referendum shenanigans.

1 - The Cabinet is keen to play politics out in public where it suits them. This may be frustrating for Labour, who complain about contradictory statements from ministers. But rows like this suit both the Lib Dems, who get to differentiate themselves from the Tories, and the Conservatives fighting their own corner in response. The EU row heralds a return to arguments being played out in the open, rather than behind the scenes. Just like Vince Cable likes them.

2 - We should have seen this coming. The Tory right has been building up to an almighty clash with David Cameron for some time. It is frustrated with life in the coalition, and as a result deeply suspicious of the Cameron-Clegg partnership. It fears the the Tory leader is giving away too much in those internal negotiations. What are small clouds elsewhere quickly gathered to become an enormous thundercloud for Europe.

3 - David Cameron's authority is eroding steadily. All prime ministers only have so long in the job before it simply becomes impossible to keep struggling on. The pace at which the leader's authority degrades depends on the circumstances he finds himself in. Some might say being in a coalition gives all involved a little more leeway for having rows, for rows (see point 1) are the very nature of coalition government. I'm not so sure. Every time a leader has to expend political capital, as Cameron has in the last week, he loses a little bit of respect. Being in government has an attritional effect on a politicians' longevity, as the PM is unfortunately experiencing.


4 - Conservatives are learning how to rebel again. Restless right-wing MPs (see point two) have taken on the prime minister once, reducing Cameron's political staying power (see point two). The period until Christmas will be critical for those close to the PM, for the malcontents may be tempted to cause a fuss once more if the opportunity arises. No 10 must make sure this sort of thing does not become a habit. The whips have a tricky task, that's for sure.

5 - The EU debate might end up being bad news for parliament's backbench business committee. This was by far the biggest impact a debate organised in Commons time controlled by MPs, rather than the government, since the backbench committee was set up after the general election. Its chair, Natascha Engel, needs to be careful, though. Although it will become increasingly difficult for the government to re-establish complete dominance of the Commons' agenda, there are no guarantees it will not seek to erode Engel and co. Her committee will have to choose its topics of debate carefully and sensitively. Otherwise an excessive number of awkward days for ministers like yesterday (see point four) might just end up backfiring.
 

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