As-it-happened: EU referendum bill's first big Commons test

Alex Stevenson By

13:50 - 14:30 - Time for a vote (or two)

14:33 - And that, as they say, is that. It's been a debate dominated by Tory glee and Labour divisions - pretty one-sided, when you put it like that. Still, that's how things have panned out in the Commons. The eurosceptic EU referendum dream lives on.

14:29 - OK, here's the result of the second reading: 304-0! There's unbridled joy on the Tory benches. They seem to have forgotten that the enormous majority the Lords reform bill received on second reading reveals exactly how much this second reading result actually means...

14:18 - And here's the result: There were 305 votes in favour of the bill, and just 30 against. We knew it was going to be one-sided - and it was. The Tory cheers are, once again, deafening. "It's only a closure motion," the deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle observes. They're now voting again on the bill's second reading.

14:07 - And there it is - a point of order from the Tory chief whip, Sir George Young, that the closure motion now takes place. The "aye" from the Tory benches is deafening, but there is enough opposition from Labour to trigger a division. It's voting time.

14:03 - The Commons chamber has started filling up again - Tory backbenchers evidently anticipating a vote very soon.

13:55 - In the Commons those backbench speeches are continuing apace, but I can't cope with any more of them. My brain has turned to eurojelly.

13:52 - It's time for a vote on the bill now. Or it should be soon, at least. If there isn't one by 14:30 the bill disappears without trace, never to be seen of again. Of course that won't happen though: a closure motion is needed to wrap things up, which can be moved by Wharton at any time. He and the Commons business managers are obviously giving the many Tory MPs who want to speak as much time as possible to get their speeches in. They're coming thick and fast now as the deadline approaches.

10:55 - 13:50 - Backbench contributions

13:48 - Red-faced Tory Edward Leigh is getting ahead of himself. "When this bill is finally talked out on some dark rainy night... we have to go back to the government and say to our partners in coalition 'give us a government bill'. And if our partners refuse to give us that bill that is an excellent platform on which to fight a general election."

13:41 - Why wait until 2017 for a referendum? Wharton's bill is to be commended because it leaves open the possibility of a referendum before that date, says Adam Afriyie. Then comes Kate Hoey, who uses her brief speech to say she'd have put the referendum bill in if she'd been top of the ballot. "As far as I'm concerned the people who suffer when there are party politics being played on either side are the public."

13:36 - Priti Patel, the Witham Tory MP, criticises Labour for rejecting the bill as a "stunt". Wayne David, the Labour MP for Caerphilly, says he was in the tearoom earlier and found the sight of "salivating" Tory MPs to be a bit much. He says the private member's bill is little more than a "pantomime".

13:31 - Frank Field falls over himself to praise Wharton's speech - and gets heckled from his own Labour benches as a result, I think by Karl Turner. He's not happy.  "I think it's quite reasonable to actually congratulate people who are not -" he pauses as the Tories cheer him on. "That sort of intervention is pathetic. If we actually think we win elections by not recognising the truth and paying tribute to people, then I think - well, I think one's time in politics is actually wasted." Apart from saying 'actually' too much, that was a decent comeback.

13:27 - The speech from Tory backbencher John Baron, arguably the leading architect of today's occasion, contains the phrase "political establishment" and "broken promises" and  - that just about tells you where he stands in relation to the powers that be.

13:20 - Quite a neat point from Gisela Stuart, who reveals she was nearly thrown out of the Labour party a decade ago for campaigning for a referendum. She quotes Napoleon saying 'when you see your enemy tearing themselves apart, don't interrupt them'.

13:19 - "Anger at, resentment towards, and distrust of, politicians is growing," Conservative MP Gordon Henderson warns. Phew. For a short sentence that was quite complex. It turns out the peopel of Sittingbourne and Sheppey have had enough, he informs the Commons. He says he backs a referendum because it's backed by the "common ideology"  of the "great British public". He says he'd prefer a referendum sooner rather than later, but says a 2017 referendum is "the next best thing".

13:10 - It's time for Graham Stringer, the Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton. He repeats Keith Vaz's concerns that a renegotiation with the European Union won't work out, because most of Britain's big problems are too firmly enshrined in the treaties. "I just don't believe that it's possible."

13:05 - "I know many people may not be agreeing with Mr Horwood," deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle says wisely, as he appeals for the Commons' various private conversations to reduce their volume. Martin Horwood, undeterred by the Tories surrounding him, says the bill is "papering over the cracks in the Conservative party itself". He is facing almost permanent disdain from the Tories. No, wait - there's a big cheer when he says "I will draw to a close".

12:55 - Martin Horwood, after making a terrible joke about rare burgers, says he likes referendums. There's a lot of rebuttalling going on here - the Lib Dem position is as tortured as the other parties', but in its own very special Lib Dem way. He gets mocked for being the only liberal in the chamber, to which he replies: "My colleagues are more focused on jobs and... promoting employment in their constituencies." Heroic stuff here - even if it doesn't read like that...

12:45 - But now Keith Vaz suggests he wants an amendment to the bill, looking at "the whole issue of reform". He doesn't think a decent renegotiation can be achieved as quickly as 2017. "Frankly I think the prime minister's timetable of two years between 2015 and 2017 will not be long enough." That's a good point.

12:40 - Keith Vaz, summing up the debate so far, says Martin Horwood was "outed" as a member of Unite; and says he's surprised Bruce didn't offer to be Wharton's mother (she had said she is old enough to be his mother, etc, etc, aaargh). Now to the actual politics. Vaz comes back to the "issue of trust" theme which has pervaded the debate. "It is the dominant issue of the last 30 to 40 years," he declares. 

12:38 - Fiona Bruce, the Tory MP for Congleton, pays tribute to John Baron for his "tremendous stirling work" in calling for a referendum. Which is nice.

12:28 - Tessa Jowell is next. She's a "lifelong" campaigner for the European Union, she says, but says she'll abstain for this bill. "It's much more about party management rather than the essential higher purpose of our national interest," she says, by way of reason. That is, frankly, a terrible reason. The issue is before the Commons and if you're going to stand up and speak, you should at least have the cojones to take an opinion on it when the division bell rings.

12:23 - "It is surprsiing how quickly things can change sometimes in politics," David Nuttall says. He wanted a referendum two years ago and the Tory party imposed a three-line whip against it. Not so this time, he points out cheekily. Nuttall has been a thorn in the side of his party's leadership for years. But he meets his promise and doesn't take long before sitting back down.

12:21 - Nigel Dodds says the fundamental point (finally!) is that whatever the policy, "it should be for the British people through their elected members in this House to decide the policy for the United Kingdom". Well, that's settled then. After he wraps up, deputy Speaker Dawn Primarolo appeals to MPs to be a bit briefer. There's no time-limit, but she just wishes they'd hurry it up a bit. David Nuttall promises to set a good example in his "brief speech".

12:12 - Say what you like about Bill Cash - 'he's boring', 'he's obsessed', 'he's boring' - that speech from his was definitely the most passionate we've seen today. Summed up in a phrase: "It's about trust," he argued. Next comes Nigel Dodds, the DUP MP for North Belfast. He's all in favour of a referendum, but doesn't think you need to wait for substantial treaty change for it to take place.Cash prompts him to agree that there's already substantial change taking place - thus agreeing that we may as well just get on with it.

11:51 - And after all that, Davidson concludes by saying he won't be backing the referendum bill. Groans from Tory MPs. Then comes Bill Cash, the most single-minded eurosceptic of them all, who begins by praising Wharton's speech. Hague is beaming up at Cash as he kicks off. "The most important principle of the Bloomberg speech is where he [Cameron] says... the root of our national democracy is our national parliament, but it is the essence of that democracy, which is when it is decided by parliament we shall give people the right to make the decision, which is the ultimate test of the trust in the electorate."

11:49 -  George Eustice, the Tory MP who used to be Cameron's spin doctor in chief, bugs the now very long-winded Ian Davidson for being part of the 'better late than never' group of Labour MPs who belatedly opposed New Labour's plans to join the euro (Labour Against The Euro, you see). That prompts Davidson to observe: "There's no difficulty in identifiying a substantial group of Labour MPs who are in favour of a referendum." The problem, he explains, is working out the terms of the referendum. It's all about the renegotiation still to come, which Labour MP Mike Gapes points out is completely undetermined.

11:33 - And then an utterly bizarre exchange which, unless my ears mistake me, involves the suggestion of a union membership card being inserted somewhere where the sun does not shine. Martin Horwood, upset by Ian Davidson's dismissal of the Lib Dems as "snivellers", announces he's scrapping his membership of Unite. He offers to give the card to Davidson after the debate; he can "do what he likes with it", Horwood says. Davidson: "Can I suggest he doesn't tempt me to do what I like with it, because what I would like to do with it is not necessarily what he would enjoy. Unless he is not the man I think he is." As you'd expect, this prompts more than a few titters in the chamber. "Once you offer it to one you're going to get off-." Best to leave it there, the MP concludes, and interrupts himself. What a relief.

11:30 - And now Ian Davidson dares to mention Unite's general secretary Len McCluskey. "The whips have been to see me. And they've sent the ultimate threat - 'if you vote for this bill we'll send Len McCluskey around to see you'." He's thoroughly proud of McCluskey, it seems - what on earth is he getting at?

11:28 - Ian Davidson, the Labour MP for Glasgow South West, kicks off by backing the bill because "the government cannot be trusted and therefore it is necessary to put this down in legislation to allow them no wriggle-room whatsoever". His ire is targeted against the Tories for not giving a referendum on the Lisbon treaty - a claim which prompts instant consternation from Gerald Howarth.

11:20 - Sir Richard Shepherd says the bill is 'diminished' by the three-line whip being imposed on it by the Tory party leadership. He apologises for presenting a "catalogue" of instances in which private member's bills have failed. He's telling a lengthy story about past instances of outrage in the government meddling in private member's bills Friday - and is getting lots of laughs from the appreciative Tories left. Underpinning the jokes is a very valuable perspective, however - Shepherd has a hell of a lot of experience on this. "Whoever has a majority in this chamber is the national interest," he declares. Wise words.

11:03 - John Denham is conducting a quite forensic breakdown of the distrust which exists between Tory backbenchers and the prime minister. John Baron isn't happy. "The issue was believability - not because there is an issue between the prime minister and his backbenchers but between politicians in general and the electorate," he says. Baron huffs and puffs, but Denham replies by saying that he doesn't expect a Tory MP to reject the statements of a Conservative prime minister. Baron calls a point of order, having been misquoted. He's fed up. "The issue is a matter for debate," deputy Speaker Dawn Primarolo replies. And so Denham continues. "This is a private matter for the Conservative party."

10:58 - That's the end of the main exchanges, and there's a fairly substantial exodus. Lots of Tory MPs happy to stay for the main speeches before jumping on the train home. Still, a significant number are hanging around to speak in the debate. And they've got something like another couple of hours to do so. John Denhamsis the next speaker. He says Cameron has been "humiliated" by his backbenchers and forced to come to the chamber. The bill is dismissed as "ridiculous". Denham was instrumental in getting Ed Miliband elected as leader, and so his speech is about as loyalist as it gets.

10:35 - William Hague's speech

10:56 - "We will be looking for suitable speakers so the chamber is not completely empty," Hague quotes the Labour briefing as saying. How embarrassing. He's finishing up now, by stating that the Tories "will do everything we can to make sure this becomes the law of the land". And with that, he wraps up.

10:54 - Hague gives way to Keith Vaz, another Labour supporter of a referendum, who asks whether Cameron will be able to cope with the renegotiations between 2015 and 2017. A serious question which Cameron looks serious about. Hague says the PM is "tirelessly" engaging in the renegotiation right now and is instantly partisan. All Keith Vaz can do is smile.

10:53 - And now comes a return to Labour-bashing. No one does quote-back quite as well as the foreign secretary. "With such a shambles of confusion and weak leadership, no wonder members opposite are wondering what they're here for and where their leader is... one day Unite will give their order about what their position is."

10:49 - But then comes a pretty funny joke from Hague about the SNP, who have been struggling to persuade Scots that they'd be able to remain in the EU if Scotland votes for independence. "The people of Scotland will vote twice on whether to leave the European Union," he says. Cameron, Osborne and the rest fall about laughing.

10:48 - "For those who like the EU just as it is... they can campaign the EU to regain its deomcratic legitimacy in this country," he suggests. The arguments are getting a little more predictable, now. After a great start the foreign secretary is slowing down a bit.

10:46 - Hague addresses Alexander's point about the EU changing. Labour argues the timetable of reform won't be over by the end of 2017, but Hague prefers to dodge this and simply says it will be changing lots. Then comes a question from Tory MP Michael Ellis, a member of the home affairs committee, who suggests Hague could use his surveillance powers to find out what the Labour party's position actually is. "I think I would get into trouble if I would use our powers for that particular purpose," Hague says, with a twinkle in his eye. Lots of chortling from the Tories. They are loving this.

10:44 - Tessa Jowell presses Hague to confirm whether he'd vote to remain in the EU. The foreign secretary's reply is conditional on a successful negotiation: "Of course we will vote to stay in a successfully reformed European Union."

10:39 - Hague's initial offensive over, he now turns to a lengthy disclaimer explaining why he's speaking for the Tories, not the government. Behind him David Cameron and George Osborne are enjoying themselves immensely. Cameron is wearing a Ukip-purple tie... though it's probably not meant that way.

10:35 - William Hague is next up - speaking for the Conservative party and not the government, it should be noted. "Rarely on this House has a speech accusing others of causing uncertainty been so shrouded in uncertainty itself!" he begins. Huge laughter from the Tory backbenchers. Hague brings out the shadow Cabinet briefing obtained by Guido. "It was left in the loo!" David Cameron observes. "They are left all over the building," Hague says. Vast amounts of laughter now.

10:15 - Douglas Alexander's speech

10:32 - John Baron, one of the biggest champions of a referendum, makes his first contribution to the debate. He says it's all about an issue of "trust" between voters and the public. It prompts Alexander to mount his best attack yet on Cameron.  "Why doesn't the Conservative party trust the Conservative prime minister?" he yells. " When are they going to release the Downing Street One, that's the question! He's sitting there like a hostage on the frontbench, not a leader!"

10:27 - Quite sensibly Alexander is spending the bulk of his speech concentrating on the frontbench - as he knows Hague will be following him in the pecking order. Another 'quote-back' against Wharton, then - the Tory MP talking about the need to concentrate on the things that matter - "jobs and the economy". Then comes Stella Creasy, who stands up to make a pro-European point about it being better for UK ministers to be in the negotiating room. 

10:24 - Now a lengthy section of what the Labour briefing calls 'quote-back' - that is, quoting back Tory statements in their faces. William Hague listens politely as his former wise words are read out once again. I'm finding Alexander a little obtuse, to be honest. He's zipping around all over the place. Tory backbenchers seem keen on pressing Alexander about whether or not a referendum would take place in the event of treaty change. "It's the law of the land," Alexander shrugs.

10:20 - Some procedural nonsense from Alexander now, who engages in nit-picking on the "vital stages" of debate which will be missed if the bill even makes it through the Commons. The Liberal Democrats can be blamed for that...

10:19 - "We have maintained our position," Alexander insists. Torrents of jeers from the Tory benches in response.

10:15 - And now here's the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, who lays out the key objections of the opposition: "We do not believe an in-out referendum... is in the national interest," he says. He says there are three lines of attack from Labour:

  1. The "arbitrary date" of 2017 is "unrelated to the timetable of likely treaty change"
  2. The prime minister has embarked on an "unrealistic and uncertain negotiating strategy"
  3. The Tories are divided too, "between those seeking consent and those seeking exit"

09:35 - James Wharton's opening speech

10:14 - He's wrapping up now. Lots of high-flown rhetoric "from Stockton and beyond". And that's that. Big cheers for a Tory backbencher whose fortunes - all thanks to the luck of the private member's bill draw - have rocketed in the last hour or so.

10:12 - Gisela Stuart, Labour's MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, makes a slightly helpful point for Ed Miliband. "The reality of the parliamentary dynamic is the government includes not just Conservative members but Liberal Democrats, who have gone back on their manifesto pledge," Wharton replies. 

10:10 - Mike Gapes objects to the Speaker about Wharton's warning about the 'misuse' of parliamentary procedure. Any wrecking amendment is fair game, Gapes suggests. John Bercow dodges the point.

10:08 - Kelvin Hopkins, Labour's Luton North MP, looks a bit grumpy after making an intervention about the workers of Greece and Spain. Then comes Philip Davies, the fairly-right-wing Conservative MP for Shipley. He suggests an improvement of the bill. If the British people voted out, "that would then be that?" He wonders whether the decisive nature of the bill could be made clearer. Wharton says the bill's fine as it is (he's mindful of the need to dodge amendments at all costs and makes that point). "I would resist further amendment," he says. 

10:04 - Jim Cunningham (was it him?), another Labour MP, wonders why we can't have a referendum next year, not in 2017. This was billed as a parade of Tory euroscepticism, and it is that - but what really matters, it seems, is the extent ot euroscepticism on the Labour benches.

10:03 - John Mann, Labour's Mr No-Holds-Barred, says he'd like to see less labour market flexibility in Europe. Not a referendum question there. "I am delighted he sees the value of a renegotiation," Wharton replies. The official Labour party position has been illuminated by Guido Fawkes, who has a copy of the party's briefing for backbenchers ahead of today's debate. Or we could just wait and see what the opposition frontbench has to say in a moment.

09:57 - Stephen Pound, another Labour MP, points out Margaret Thatcher's quote that referendums are "devices of demagogues and dictators". That's the first anti-Tory comment we've seen from a Labour backbencher.

09:56 - Martin Horwood, the Lib Dem, jumps up again to repeat the Lib Dem point: that the coalition has this all sewn up with the referednum lock. Wharton chooses not to bash the Lib Dems again then. There are cheers as a lurid-green Kate Hoey (her clothes, that is) stands up. She makes the point that the majority of voters want a referendum. The Tories are loving it. "I would extend to her on this issue the hand of cross-party friendship," Wharton declares - on this, the most partisan of occasions.

09:54 - "To paraphrase Goethe..." Sir Tony Baldry says. He is wearing a thoroughly summery white linen suit. Baldry is one of the 11 Tory backbenchers who are co-signatories of the bill. The others, for the record, are Guto Bebb, Graham Brady, William Cash, Nigel Dodds, Stephen Dorrell, Jackie Doyle-Price, Liam Fox, Zac Goldsmith, Sir Gerald Howarth and Sheryll Murray.

09:53 - Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader, asks why the bill is needed when the coalition's already legislated for a referendum block? He's virtually drowned out by Tory scorn. "It never ceases to amaze me how the Liberal Democrats change their position as the wind blows," Wharton replies. Oof!

09:51 - Frank Field, the Labour veteran, warns of "fascist representation" rearing its ugly head on the continent in the near future. He wonders whether British renegotiation is not just in the UK's interest, but the whole of Europe's too.

09:49 - "I'm putting forward an argument we should trust the British people to make that decision," Wharton says, continuing. It's a marvellous opportunity for him, this. Apart from his habit of rocking back and forth as he speaks, he's got off to a good start.

09:45 - Labour MP Tom Docherty says Wharton has done a "great job in coming up with his bill". Every time a Labour MP stands up and does that it's a blow for Ed Miliband.

09:44 - Virtually every Tory MP seems desperate to have their say in this debate, it seems, and Wharton seems happy to let most of them do so. John Bercow steps in to tell Tories to calm down. They're like over-excited children - unruly and full of beans. This is what happens when you let them get their way...

09:40 - Wharton seems determined to give way and let other MPs in at every possible opportunity. So his speech could take a while. There's the first mention of David Cameron, there, referred to by a Tory MP as  "our marvellous prime minister". This is going to a loooooooong morning.

09:37 - The government benches are packed with Conservatives as James Wharton kicks off. Labour's benches aren't that empty either. The Liberal Democrat benches are actually rather busy, too. Nadhim Zahawi gets in an early jibe against Ed Miliband for not turning up. Then comes Dennis Skinner, who gets huge laughter from the Tory benches for regretting the nation not following him in voting 'no' in the 1970s.

09:35 - Cameron gets his priorities right

Well, almost. Andy Murray really ought to come ahead of the EU referendum bill...



09:30 - Meet James Wharton MP

We're moments away from getting underway in the Commons chamber - right now MPs will be holding prayers before the main event gets underway. First though, here's some revealing information from a profile I did of James Wharton after his name came top of the private member's bill ballot:

Giant penis statues, a boules pitch and shaking hands with Sri Lanka: the early political career of the man thrust into the limelight by chance this morning is surprisingly colourful

09:25 - Not a referendum guarantee, after all

There will be plenty of time later to pick over the nitty-gritty of the legislation, but its salient points are easily summarised. It's "a bill to make provision for the holding of a referendum in the United Kingdom on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union". The referendum would be held before the end of 2017 and would pose the question: "Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?"

Interestingly, the bill does not absolutely guarantee a referendum would take place in the next parliament. That would tie the hands of a future parliament and therefore be constitutionally unacceptable. This was exactly what MPs like eurosceptic John Baron wanted, of course - they were keen to make it as hard as possible for the referendum to be undone.

The reality of this bill is much less scary for Europhiles. It would require a green light from both the Commons and the Lords for a referendum to actually be triggered. Guaranteeing a division on the issue is a long way from guaranteeing the referendum itself, so it will be interesting to see how many Tory hardliners kick up a fuss about that.

09:20 - Pretending it's a normal day

Here's the line put out by Labour's shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander on the referendum debate. Reading it in isolation, you'd think it was just another day for the opposition.

Today the Commons will see the Conservative Party talking to itself and once again banging on about Europe.

Last night there was a barbeque and this morning there’s a bill, both to try and silence rebellious Conservative backbenchers.

Instead of trying to get his backbenchers back in line, the Prime Minister should be spending his time getting the country back on track.

09:15 - For your consideration

Here's the bill itself:



09:10 - Labour troubles

Part of the reason the Tories are in such good spirits is that the bill is unlikely to be scuppered at this initial stage of its progress through parliament. Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour are steering clear of the debate, claiming they have better things to do than indulge the Tories. In Labour's case, those better things are now dominated by Ed Miliband's confrontation with the Unite union. His standoff with his party's biggest beneficiary is box office stuff by itself. It is a monstrously big test for his leadership. Add the EU referendum bill into the mix, and suddenly it becomes one of judgement on policy, too.

This is the argument being pedalled by right-wingers anyway. They have a point, though. Labour has struggled to come up with a consistent position on Cameron's EU referendum. And the party's official absence from today's debate will be taken as clear proof that Labour is divided on Europe. This would have been embarrassing enough without the Falkirk row and everything that is springing from it. When added to that, the EU referendum debate becomes one about Miliband's authority in parliament, too.

09:00 - Referendums and tongs

Good morning, everyone - it's the morning after the barbecue before. Last night David Cameron was getting chummy with his unruly backbenchers by serving them burgers and hot dogs in Downing Street's Rose Garden. This was an occasion for the prime minister to be at one with his parliamentary party, setting aside past confrontations and letting bygones be bygones on the eve of today's second reading debate of the Tory-backed European Union (referendum) bill, which gets underway shortly after 09:30 this morning. By all accounts the evening was a big success, as this selection of tweets shows...




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