Tory EU referendum car crash as-it-happens

Alex Stevenson By

14:32 - And with that, a tetchy five-hour debate draws to a close. This was all about Labour backbenchers being as unpleasant and wasting as much time as possible, and they can wrap up feeling reasonably pleased with themselves. The news is that just one of the four groupings of amendments was voted on, meaning there's still an awful lot of work for Wharton and the Tories to do. Thanks very much for following.

14:30 - The cutoff point arrives and James Wharton says the bill will return in a couple of weeks' time. That is that. We haven't had a vote on the Afriyie amendment, frustratingly - that will have to wait for next time. This means we've only got through one lot of amendments this time round. Still, there's nothing we've seen here to really change the logic that it will very easily have enough time to get through into the Lords.

14:28 - Afriyie is sitting two rows back from the government frontbench, sitting forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped, listening carefully.

14:26 - Amendments about consultation, those seeking to avoid the referendum clashing with religious holidays and the date - that's what they've been debating, David Lidington says, as he begins the wrap-up. It looks like we'll get a vote after he's finished speaking.

14:23 - And now the deputy Speaker does intervene, warning Hain "he is in danger of being a little repetitive".

14:17 - Meanwhile, in the Commons chamber, Peter Hain has been banging on for ages. He seems to be striking just the right balance between waffling and attracting the ire of the deputy Speaker, who has already faced numerous points of order today complaining about Labour time-wasting. With no time limit on backbenchers' speeches, he can just go on and on and on...

After the Commons, what next for Wharton's bill?

So. The EU (referendum) bill is going to make it through to the Lords (see below, around 10am, for the three reasons why that's the case). What will happen after that?

Well, first the bill goes up to the Lords. If you think the time-wasting we've seen in the Commons is bad, just wait and see how it goes in the upper House. Their procedural rules make it much easier for backbench malcontents to delay progress. In fact, Lib Dem peers have already indicated they are going to do everything they can to sabotage the bill. And we can expect they will succeed in doing so. If the bill isn't returned to the Commons before the session ends next spring, James Wharton's bill dies the death of so many pieces of private member's bills legislation.

But that doesn't mean all is lost.

Like a phoenix from the ashes, a revived version of the bill could be reintroduced again in the final session of this parliament.

It might even be eligible for the Parliament Act. Almost everyone I've spoken to in Westminster think it doesn't apply - because only government bills are eligible, or because it's not a 'public' bill.

Both are inaccurate. Private member's bills are 'public' bills, and the Parliament Act is undiscriminating about where the legislation comes from.

This means that, if the Commons were to send a bill up to the Lords next year which is identical to the current EU (referendum) bill when it goes up to the Lords, and does so more than one month before the end of the 2014/15 session, it will become law one way or the other.

This is the backup plan of Tory eurosceptics. The big challenge this poses is getting it through the Commons a second time, of course. Labour might not be so willing to turn a blind eye to it.

But that's the whole point of the exercise. For the Conservatives, it looks like being a win-win scenario. Either they get the referendum they want guaranteed, or they succeed in forcing Labour to oppose it.

13:00 - 14:00 - Afriyie's blink-and-you-miss-it speech

13:43 - Here's the guidance, by the way, on when today's debates finish:

If proceedings on this Bill end before 2.30pm, the second Bill and, possibly, subsequent Bills may be debated in the time remaining. After 2.30pm, only those Bills which are unopposed may make further progress.

So it's like the end of a rugby game basically - once the time is up, it's a question of when the bill is opposed that the session gets wrapped up.

13:39 - As Peter Hain points out, Afriyie's 2014 logic is entirely based on the premise that the Tories haven't got a hope of winning the 2015 general election.

13:36 - Points of order are coming along like tube trains. They're what Afriyie will have to get through, as he's not accepting interventions from frustrated Labour MPs. "By chasing the EU referendum dream for 2017, we risk losing the EU referendum for 2014 and the 2015 general election." And that is more or less that.

13:35 - Charles Walker suggests to Afriyie that a 2017 referendum would give the Tories the best chance of winning over the British people. The Windsor MP replies by saying the Tories are united in wanting a referendum. He attacks "the British establishment" for being "woefully out of touch with British public opinion".

13:32 - "It's been a bit of a bumpy ride getting here today," Adam Afriyie begins, as he begins explaining why he thinks everyone agrees with him.

13:28 - His autumn-leaves-brown jacket overshadows an intervention from Robert Halfon, who was speaking (just to confuse everyone) from the Lib Dem benches. On the opposition side, Labour MPs are getting worked up about the complete lack of pre-legislative scrutiny this bill has been through.

13:20 - Now it's the turn of Bernard Jenkin, a Tory backbencher, to go on the offensive with some points of order. He attacks Willie Bain for raising an amendment which refers to "the merits or otherwise of the United Kingdom remaining a member of the European Union". This is far too broad to be a subject for debate, Jenkin argues, and the deputy Speaker agrees.

13:06 - The result is rather one-sided: ayes 299, nos: Zilch. Now Chris Williamson is repeating his point of order from earlier about complaining about the use of "imperial legislation". Which sounds pretty cool and Darth Vader-ish but is actually rather tedious. "It's not a point of order," Eleanor Laing tells the House. The next grouping of amendments contains Adam Afriyie's. Yikes! Now the car crash really begins...

13:04 - For the third time today, the chair has to ask the serjeant-at-arms to investigate the delay in the 'no' lobby. Those pesky time-wasting Labour backbenchers...

12:00 - 13:00: Wrapping up Gibraltar

12:50 - This amendment, now being voted on, is going to be passed. It's backed by both Europe minister David Lidington and James Wharton himself. Ne-ext!

12:49 - The result of the closure motion was 293 saying yes, time to vote on the amendment on Gibraltar; and 32 MPs (filibustering Labour backbenchers, of course) saying no, let's keep talking. Now they move to the actual vote on 'new clause one', which you can read in full here. If you are a nerd.

12:46 - I've just realised that a slight tweak is needed in the standfirst for this blog. It previously read: 'Live coverage of Tory infighting over the EU, with an added sprinkle of Labour troublemaking'.

It now reads: 'Live coverage of Labour troublemaking over the Tory EU private member's bill, with an added sprinkle of Tory infighting.'

12:45 - MPs are now voting - the result is due any moment now. They're not voting on whether to amend the bill, though. They're voting on whether to vote to amend the bill. Of course. Yet again there's a delay in the 'no' lobby...

12:30 - Well, I've been eating some soup. And trying to block out Gareth Thomas' worthy advocacy of the virtues of voting at 16. This was something which Ed Miliband got a massive round of applause for during his leader's speech at the Labour party conference this autumn, so Thomas was always going to go for it.

After another point of order form Kevan Jones, who is worried that a civil servant might have taken a picture with their mobile phone, MPs are now voting. There's two hours to go until the end of this debate...

12:15 - Labour MPs are now kicking up a fuss because James Wharton has briefly left the chamber for a bathroom break. It's like a warmup for the Ashes in there.

12:09 - While the Labour frontbench is very happy ignoring the bill in terms of whipping, that is not stopping Gareth Thomas chipping in and doing his own thing in wasting time. He's been going on about Gibraltar for ages now.

Here's what one Labour source close to Alexander told me about the bill:

This bill is more about Tory party internal management than about Britain's national interest. The Afriyie amendment shows that on Europe, Tory backbenchers won't give up until David Cameron gives in. It's unprecedented for a governing party to use backdoor parliamentary procedure to propose major constitutional change, and it's unclear if the Liberal Democrats will support this step.

11:00 - 12:00 - Labour gripes

11:55 - "The honourable lady is drifting away," Primarolo warns Hillier. "My natural enthusiasm for this area overtook me," she explains. Gapes, who is sitting directly behind her, smiles to himself. She wraps up and it's now time for the Labour frontbench contribution, from Gareth Thomas. Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, is also gracing the chamber with his presence today.

11:45 - Meanwhile...

11:42 - A slight glimmer of interest now as Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South, who claims her constituency is among the youngest in the UK. Or something. In any case, her amendment about expanding the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds is now being debated. There are now more Labour backbenchers in the chamber than Tories, as Labour's Kevan Jones points out:

11:31 - Barry Sheerman makes a point of order, complaining that James Wharton hasn't even bothered to speak yet.  "How can the sponsor never speak but the government minister dominates the conversation?" he asks. The deputy Speaker's reply is that she basically doesn't care. Wharton can do what he likes. (The reason he's not speaking is because he doesn't want to waste any time, of course)

11:26 - Lidington wraps up, amid a chorus of 'give way!' from Labour which he studiously ignores. And the debate moves on to amendment 69, from Labour backbencher Willie Bain, who wants those living in British overseas territories to be given a vote.

11:15 - There's then a big ruckus as Labour backbenchers kick up a fuss about Lidington not giving way. Of course he doesn't want to - he wants to get through his speech as quickly as possible. A point of order from Kevan Jones wastes a bit more time, and merely prompts Lidington to confirm his plan of ignoring them completely.

11:12 - Martin Horwood bugs David Lidington about "what capacity he is now speaking?". Lidington says he is speaking as a minister, after all. Lidington, the Europe minister, is going to talk about Gibraltar for a bit. It's happening right now. "I've taken legal advice I'm confident I was able to give the House legal advice..." lots of frowning from Lidington, who has now survived two junior ministerial reshuffles and is very well-regarded across the House.

 

 

Afriyie amendment: What it means for David Cameron

If called today, the Adam Afriyie amendment is going to be thoroughly awkward for the prime minister. The Conservative leadership has backed James Wharton's private member's bill to the hilt, having taken it upon themselves to get it ready before he even won the ballot to choose it. So to have Afriyie completely derailing matters by proposing something entirely separate from what David Cameron had proposed really messes things up.

Cameron wants an in-or-out referendum to be a lure for voters at the next general election, but Afriyie thinks differently. He wants a referendum next autumn. Roughly 30 Conservative MPs are expected to back him if it comes to a vote, according to reports. That compares poorly to the 81 MPs who rebelled against David Cameron to call for a referendum a couple of years ago - but the figure tallies, because roughly a third of the Tory party membership supports Afriyie.

There is a further problem with the Afriyie amendment, however. If it was passed, it would not just ruin Cameron's plan. It would also ruin the hopes of Tory backbenchers that they might be able to repeat this exercise next year in the run-up to the general election. That rests on the Parliament Act being valid for this bill.

I've been doing a lot of research about this. Commons clerks have indicated they think the Afriyie amendment would effectively render the bill ineligible for the Parliament Act. That's because the Parliament Act only applies to identical bills which are sent up to the Lords from the Commons in separate sessions. The problem is that the second time the bill would be sent to the Lords would take place after the date of Afriyie's proposed referendum - thus making them not identical, at all.

This Parliament Act idea is an intriguing one, isn't it? I'll continue my brain dump on this in an hour or so... it's fascinating stuff, honest!

10:00 - 11:00 - Gibraltar ramblings

10:59 - I've spent the bulk of the last 15 minutes digging around the order paper trying to work out whether the Afriyie amendment is likely to be called today. It's a very simple one - "leave out ‘before 31 December 2017’ and insert ‘on 23 October 2014’". But it would make a huge difference. It's among the current grouping but not sure when it will be popping up. In any case, as Mike Gapes continues to explore the constitutional complications of the franchise for the referendum (see tweet below), I'm going to write something up now on what the Afriyie gambit means for the potential fate of the bill.

 

 

10:43 - A successful point of order from a Labour backbencher - sorry, I didn't catch which one - who complains that James Wharton is approaching the box containing Foreign Office civil servants for advice. This isn't cool, Madam Deputy Speaker Dawn Primarolo explains. Only ministers or PPS' are allowed to ask them for advice. Mike Gapes suggests the easy solution is for Wharton to be rapidly appointed a PPS.

10:39 - Now it's time for Mike Gapes, the Ilford South MP, to begin his bid to block this debate as far as possible. His aim is clear - let's see how his marathon foot-dragging exercise goes. Right now the atmosphere in the Commons chamber is one of frantic engagement with the issue of Gibraltar - it's not a classic filibuster by any stretch of the imagination.

10:35 - A controversial declaration from the Speaker which really messes up something procedurally. Martin Horwood (Lib Dem, constantly corrected by Bercow this morning) had suggested he ought to refer to Europe minister David Lidington as the rt hon member for Aylesbury rather than the minister, as he was not speaking on behalf of the government. That seemed odd, Labour backbencher John Spellar thought. He raised an interesting point of order: could it be true that a minister speaking from the despatch box could not be speaking for the government? "A minister who speaks from the Treasury bench is speaking for the government," Bercow declared. Horwood replied: "That raises a very interesting issue indeed and one perhaps for the government to reflect on on both sides of the coalition."

This is horribly awkward for the government whips because it suggests they've got their procedure wrong. William Hague spoke from the despatch box at the second reading of the bill. The Lib Dems are going to be very irritated that in his backing of the bill he was ostensibly speaking on behalf of them, too. Of course as europhiles they despise this legislation as much as Labour does.

10:20 - Horwood is taking a lot of interventions on the floor, as he makes the careful and considered point that "Gibraltar is not part of the United Kingdom". Labour and Tory MPs are nevertheless arguing in response that Gibraltar - which is after all stuck on the end of Europe - relies on the UK a hell of a lot.

10:14 - The most shocking clanger of a joke from Richard Bacon, who responds to Horwood's queries about where Gibraltar would be left. "Isn't it obvious it would leave Gibraltar between a rock and a hard place?" he asks, to groans from across the chamber. Appalling. Just appalling.

10:12 - Martin Horwood, who is the Lib Dem backbench spokesperson on international affairs, calls the referendum "a PR exercise to cover up the deep division in the Conservative party over whether or not to remain in Europe".

10:11 - Back in the chamber, MPs are passing points to and fro about Gibraltar. Labour MP Thomas Docherty has just cited the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. So I think this is the moment when it's time to put listening-carefully-mode on hold. In the meantime, I instead urge you to read the following, which was a response to tweets like this:

 

 

10:00: Why the EU referendum bill is set to make it through the Commons

Lots of eurosceptics are simply desperate to see this bill get through the Commons. When I suggested on Twitter yesterday that this was "easy" and definitely going to happen, a few of youse guys suggested I was being a little over-confident. But I'm not. And here's three reasons why.

1 - The Labour frontbench have turned their backs on the bill

The shadow Cabinet don't really know how to cope with this bill. On the one hand, they feel it is their constitutional duty to scrutinise it. On the other - and this is the upper hand - they are aware the whole thing is a Tory stunt to boost their eurosceptic credentials. Their reaction has been to dismiss it as a 'parliamentary gimmick' - which is why there are only around 20 Labour MPs in the chamber today. Opposition sources have told me they expect the bill to get through the Commons.

2 - Lots of amendments, but not enough

What about all those amendments to this bill, tabled by Labour backbencher troublemaker-in-chief Mike Gapes? Well, it's true these are usually big trouble to a private member's bill, the problem being James Wharton can't cut off debate. If it doesn't get finished by 14:30 today, we'll roll over into another day. But because the bill is deliberately short, there's not that much to scrutinise. All those amendments were rolled into four groupings.

My understanding is that there are about two groupings a day, so this will take two days - or maybe three - at the most.

3 - The Tories have cleared the private member's bill schedule

There are about seven private member's bills days left in the current session, three of which are in November (this is the first). Because there's only one other private member's bill that's made it to the committee stage, the way has been cleared for this bill to take centre-stage.

09:00 - 10:00: The debate gets underway (eventually)

10:00 - Here's what a report from September this year by the Commons' procedure committee had to say about that vote:

The consequence of the routine moving of the motion 'That the House sit in private' before the orders of the day on Fridays have been entered upon has been to render it a dead letter. It is now simply a waste of time, and adds to the lack of clarity about procedures on private Members' Fridays. We recommend that a motion 'That the House sit in private' no longer be permitted to be moved on a private Member's Friday. We note that Standing Order No. 163 provides that the Speaker or the chair may order the withdrawal of those other than Members or Officers from any part of the House whenever he thinks fit, so the provision is not necessary for the purpose of enabling the House to sit in private.

09:58 - The actual debate is now getting underway, and it's Romford MP Andrew Rosindell - who takes a huge interest in overseas territories and the like - who is kicking us off with his amendment about Gibraltar. He wants them to be included in the referendum.

09:55 - Chris Williamson raises another point of order now, complaining about Tory divisions. Bercow isn't impressed and calls it a "bogus point of order". Next is Lib Dem Martin Horwood, who wants Bercow to explain why he didn't choose the amendments he'd tabled. Bercow tells him off, too. "If I were inclined to put it bluntly, I would say the honourable gentleman can like it or lump it."

09:53 - Ridiculous. The result is 290-0, showing just how theatrical that whole thing actually was. And now, here's a point of order from Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is demanding an investigation into the result. "A member who shouts 'aye' must not then vote in the contrary direction or indeed vice versa," Bercow concedes. But he says it doesn't matter in this case, because he thinks that you can shout 'aye' and then not bother voting if you don't want to.

09:50 - We're still waiting for the vote - and there's a bit of a delay. More timewasting, many MPs will believe! Speaker John Bercow, who unusually is chairing proceedings on a Friday, asks the serjeant-at-arms to investigate.

09:39 - What we're seeing here is a delaying tactic by enemies of the bill. The division relates to standing order 163, which declares that if less than 40 MPs back the motion 'that the House sit in private', it can't happen. It takes up time, effectively moving the start of the debate back to 09:50 from 09:35.

09:35 - Prayers are over in the Commons chamber, and already we've got an unusual twist. David Nuttall raises a point of order, that the House sits in private. There's a sizeable body of MPs who oppose this - so the day begins with a division. That takes up valuable time. Whatever happens, the private member's bill debates have to finish at 14:30.

09:30 - There's not long before we get going, so here's the story so far.

  • - David Cameron uses his January Bloomberg speech to radically revise his European policy. He wants the Tories to unite behind the promise of an in-or-out referendum by 2018 if he is prime minister after the next general election.
  • - The Tories fail to unite behind Cameron's policy.
  • - Instead some call on the PM to legislate to guarantee a referendum by 2018, regardless of who wins in 2015.
  • - This is hopelessly impractical, as the Lib Dems in government obviously decide to nix the idea.
  • - So Tory backbenchers have a bright idea: causing a massive political fuss by attempting to legislate through a private member's bill.
  • - Astonishingly, the winner of the private member's bill ballot is James Wharton - a Tory willing to run with the ball chucked to him.
  • - Labour dismiss the whole thing as a gimmick and studiously ignore it.
  • - As a result the bill gets through its second reading in parliament.
  • - Labour engage in a bit more nit-picking at committee stage, trying to balance the 'gimmick' dismissal approach with their responsibility as the opposition of scrutinising major constitutional legislation.
  • - The bill arrives back on the floor of the Commons today, right now in fact, for its report stage.

09:25 - Good morning, everyone. I'm not in parliament today because of something to do with a baby, but have amassed a monstrous amount of knowledge about this bill over the last two weeks. And I feel I should disgorge it all inbetween making horribly dry observations about the MPs contributing to today's debate in the Commons chamber. It's a question of Tory infighting today, with an added sprinkle of Labour troublemaking. But, as I'll explain (what fun), everyone in the chamber is playing a much, much longer game.

Get involved Get Involved