Filibuster! How saboteurs can scupper Cameron's EU referendum bill

They may as well call it a lock-in, a private coalition fight club where the normal rules are suspended
The Conservative party's backbenches are being encouraged to hope - in vain
Alex Stevenson By

Filibusters are usually doomed attempts at derailing reform by desperate politicians. Not so the wrecking speeches expected when the EU referendum bill arrives in the Commons next month: for once, it's the saboteurs who have the upper hand.

The first big test for private members' bills is at second reading, when 100 MPs are required to back the legislation. Any less and the 'quora' is not judged to have been met. This is often a problem because MPs habitually return to their constituencies on Fridays. Persuading them to miss a romantic meal with the wife, or even just the weekly surgery, can be challenging if the issue is an obscure one. Wharton will not have that problem. The eurosceptic wing of the Tory party (that's a big wing) will be out in force.

The filibustering opportunity comes a little later in the process, once the bill has worked its way through the public bill committee stage and returns to the Commons chamber. This is the best opportunity for Labour troublemakers to try and ruin the bill's chances. In parliament this process is known as 'talking out', but it has the same rogue character as the classic US filibuster.

A group of Tories managed it very effectively in 2012. Rebecca Harris, the Conservative MP, had come up with a convincing set of arguments as to why MPs should legislate to bring the clocks forward, permanently, by a full hour. There were huge potential advantages for public health, the economy and even cutting crime. But as a private member's bill her reform was vulnerable to being 'talked out'.

That is exactly what happened. Jacob Rees-Mogg, capable of producing devastating amounts of waffle when required, came up with the goods in a series of pointless and meandering interventions. For example: "The relevant Secretary of State and President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), is known to be one of the wisest men in Parliament. Lenin’s brain after his untimely death was kept for scientific research to see how such a great brain could operate and why it was different from other brains, and I am sure that this will happen in the sad event of the death of the President of the Board of Trade - may that day long be put off."

We shouldn't be surprised our elected representatives are capable of such depths of randomness. They are a class of people inherently capable of banging on for hours about nothing in particular, yet constrained by the demands of the political soundbite to at least attempt a touch of brevity. The shackles are off when a filibuster is on the cards. Give a politician carte blanche to talk for hours and you've only got yourself to blame for what follows.

When they are motivated by an issue they really care about, almost anything becomes possible. The endless filibustering of the 19th century by Irish MPs seeking independence caused chaos for the government of the day's legislative agenda. In 1935, a US Senator talked for over 15 hours about important issues like how to fry oysters and prepare Roquefort salad; in 1957 the long-lived Strom Thurmond managed an astonishing 24 hours and 18 minutes opposing civil rights.

All these noble efforts were undertaken out of desperation; that urge to do whatever it takes is what unites filibusterers the world over. There has always been something a bit outlandish about the practise; it's derived from the Dutch word meaning 'pirate', after all. Filibustering is actually just one part of the broader pattern of behaviour when desperate politicians become prepared to sabotage the everyday rules of the game in order to notch up a political victory. The new breed of Labour bruisers in the Lords who came close to blocking the AV referendum bill in February 2011 spring to mind. Then they were able to cause the leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, deep discomfort, but he always had the fallback option of resorting to the rulebook himself if need be. In the Commons, the Speaker has the power to shut rambling members up if he deems it necessary.

That's what makes the impending 'talking out' of the EU referendum bill so tantalising. This is a rare occasion where it's the filibusterers who have the advantage; the Speaker is unlikely to intervene so long as the wreckers do not overplay their hand. The odds are firmly in their favour. Much to the chagrin of the Conservatives desperate to see their referendum calls succeed, they

But there is a twist. The Conservatives backing the EU referendum bill know it will never command a majority in the Commons, because Labour and the Liberal Democrats are set to unite to reject it outright. They may hope that a small rump of Labour eurosceptics could tip the balance in their favour, but the chances of success are slim at best.

Tory backbenchers are being invited to dream, in the best tradition of desperate politicians hoping to filibuster, that the improbable might still be possible. A private member's bill, with its low conversion rates and limited life expectancy, is being painted as the best way of conducting this contest separate from the norms of life in parliament. The debates will take place on a Friday, when all right-thinking politicians are already firmly in weekend mode. The backbencher-dominated sessions are nothing much to do with the government at all, giving the parties the perfect excuse to construct artificial boundaries in their minds between 'stability of the government' issues and this private, closed effect. They may as well call it a lock-in, a private coalition fight club where the normal rules are suspended and the two sides can get to grips with each other away from everyday life.

This is the vision cultivated in the minds of Tory eurosceptics by their party leadership of how things will hopefully turn out. It's a vision embellished by David Cameron, with his talk of doing everything the Conservative party can of getting the bill through.

He realises the power of the filibusterers means this is already a done deal.

The more awake eurosceptics will realise, in their turn, that Cameron expects the private member's bill to fail. It will only underline their impression that, despite everything he says and sometimes even does, the prime minister is at heart a closet europhile.

The EU referendum bill is a piece of theatre designed to fail.  That deep suspicion, which these coming filibusterers will help reveal, is only going to get stronger in the months to come.


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