Comment: The EU referendum bill could be the Act that sank in sight of shore

John Baron: 'To increase the chances of success, a private members bill must have as few amendments as possible.'
John Baron: 'To increase the chances of success, a private members bill must have as few amendments as possible.'

By John Baron

As someone closely involved in the parliamentary campaign to secure the prime minister's support for legislation in this parliament for a referendum in the next, I fear the unintended consequences of Adam Afriyie's amendment to James Wharton's private member's bill.

There is every chance we will not secure our objectives in this parliament if the amendment were passed. This would betray the efforts of the many of us, both inside and outside parliament, who have campaigned hard to give the electorate their say on this issue of seminal importance. More importantly, it would betray the electorate itself.

It is worth remembering the private members bill had a difficult birth. In October 2011, 81 of us defied a three-line whip to vote for an EU referendum. A little over a year later, and after our campaign which included two letters signed by over 100 colleagues, the prime minister committed the party to a referendum in the next parliament, after a period of renegotiation. However, it still took 114 Conservatives to vote for my Queen's Speech amendment for him to commit the party to supporting the legislation in this parliament - as now contained within James Wharton's bill.


The Afriyie amendment, no matter how well-intentioned, risks throwing away all that has been achieved. Private members bills are liable to fail for a large number of reasons – which is why so few become Acts – and so it is folly to add to the danger the bill is already in.

To increase the chances of success, a private members bill must have as few amendments as possible. Unlike government bills, which benefit from the government's ability to shift around parliamentary business, private members bills can be 'talked out' if discussion of amendments is ongoing when the allocated time has elapsed.

Liberal Democrat and Labour opponents of the bill – and they are legion – will no doubt table their own amendments. All of these will have to be got through in time if the bill is to progress. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for an EU referendum, I would encourage Labour and the Liberals to change their stance, which would change the dynamics – but there is no sign of that yet.

More importantly, the current bill does not preclude a 2014 vote. The bill states the referendum must take place by 31st December 2017 – MPs could vote for the bill as it stands and still advocate a vote next year. There is nothing to be gained by supporting the amendment, but the whole bill could be lost if MPs do.

Of course, the premise of the Afriyie amendment is in many ways difficult to argue against. I have long advocated a referendum, and by that measure ought to welcome an early vote.  However, enthusiasm for a 2014 vote should not blind us to the downsides. Moreover, having previously supported a referendum in the next parliament, we need to see it through. It would not be right to shift the goalposts now the programme has been set. Constancy is required.

The eurozone crisis still has a way to run – the markets have not finished with it yet. It would be wrong to launch into a referendum before we know what sort of EU we are facing. Though I am sceptical of how flexible the EU will become – the present direction of travel being the other way – I see the advantages of trying to re-shaping our relationship along the basis of trade, not politics. If we can repatriate core powers whilst maintaining access to the single market, there is a decent case for remaining an EU member. If we cannot, it would be plain for all to see. A 2014 referendum would not allow any time for the process of renegotiation to bear fruit.

Furthermore, a referendum next year risks colliding with the Scottish independence vote. At a time when limpid clarity is required, muddying the waters with a second referendum of similarly major constitutional and political significance would be unwise.

Like many others, I do not doubt Adam Afriyie's sincerity in his support for a referendum in 2014. However, I believe his amendment could render the EU referendum bill the Act that sank in sight of shore. I join many colleagues in urging him to pull his amendment – let's all rally round on 8th November and give the electorate the say they have been denied for too long.

John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon & Billericay and a member of the foreign affairs select committee. 

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