UK bill on EU referendum

From the 8 January Guardian, “Labour and Lib Dem whips discuss how to block Tory-backed EU referendum“. Two points of particular interest:

Clerks have controversially told ministers that the Parliament Act can be used on a private member’s bill, so allowing the Commons to enforce their will against unelected peers.

The Parliament Act is the law by which a bill that has been rejected by the House of Lords can be forced through on a second majority vote, thereby overriding the Lords, after a year’s delay. Normally it is applied only to important government bills. However, the government has not formally made the proposal for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU one of its own. Hence it is a “private member’s” bill.


The Commons Speaker will have to decide whether the bill can be given extra time to be debated, but this could then lead to a timetable motion being tabled with one part of the coalition – the Conservatives – calling for extra government time in the Commons and the other opposing extra time.

It remains a constitutional grey area whether one part of a coalition government can table a government timetable motion.

UK legislative practice continues to evolve.

And, of course, the entire story is of interest because while the Conservatives are divided over the EU, their Liberal Democratic coalition partners are pro-EU (and against a referendum that they once favored, when they thought they’d get the definitive pro-EU result they wanted). As the headline indicates, the LibDems will work with the Labour opposition to try to derail the bill from passing before the 2015 election. The issue is just one of many on which the current coalition partners will differentiate themselves in the run-up to that election, with a possible eye to a Labour-LibDem coalition or other cooperation thereafter.

Interesting times in UK politics.

7 thoughts on “UK bill on EU referendum

  1. Commenting only on the constitutional issue, the Leader of the House of Commons is a Tory and he is the one who allocates government time. The Lib Dems are in the equivalent position of dissident MPs belonging to a party in government. If the government is dependent on their votes for its majority, they can threaten to rebel and vote against the government, even bringing it down, if they don’t get their way, but their ownly other option is to swallow their objections and support the government. The only real difference is that for institutional and political reasons the Lib Dem MPs are more likely to “rebel”. But until they actually walk out of the coalition, the government can allocate more time.

    Also, this is not the first time where either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House (it used to be part of the same job) came from a party that did not have a majority in the commons, but had formed a government with support from MPs at least nominally belonging to another party. Even after World War II this situation has occured three times. So there are precedents to go by.

    • The Leader of the House of Commons’ party status is not particularly relevant to the issue of the Coalition government’s allocation of parliamentary time. Cabinet ministers, including the Commons Leader, are bound by the conventions of collective responsibility and those apply whether the government is a coalition or not. The Liberal-Democrats have done a fairly spectacular job of allowing themselves to be outmanoeuvred at every turn, and should probably consider withdrawing from the Coalition. On the other hand the best time to do that would have been when the Conservatives shot down the alternative vote.

      On a sidenote I’ve always hated that title because most people reading it assume the leader for he House is in some sense an officer of the House rather than a cabinet minister appointed by the prime minister. The Scottish title of Minister for Parliamentary Business or the Australian Senate title of Leader of Government Business are both better descriptions of the function.

  2. Who will benefit from the Referendum? Is it worth having a Referendum on EU issues? Even if the UK withdraws from the EU, then it would not have the ability to affect EU policy.

    This referendum begs the question, should the UK have a written codified constitution? And another question is should the UK have proportional representation? Why is David Cameron so oppose to Proportional Representation especially since the UKIP party might cause him to lose the election? What circumstance would cause the UK to embrace Proportional Representation?

  3. I would imagine Cameroon is opposed to PR because the Tories always get more seats than their vote share dictates. Additionally, with most PR options, any chance for a Tory government without a coalition goes away.

  4. I don’t see why this issue should beg the question of whether the UK ought to have a written codified constitution or PR, but the absence of each of them is a long story which is worth looking up and reading a bit on.
    As to questions of support/opposition, the Liberal Democrats are the only party advocating a written constitution, the main two parties being ‘suspicious’ if not downright opposed because of, in their words, the ‘great traditions of parliamentary sovereignty’ (read: great traditions of the government being able to do whatever it wants) and the enormous power enjoyed by unelected judges in countries with constitutional judicial review.
    As to PR, the conservatives have not always received more than their proportional share of seats; at each election won by Labour led by Tony Blair (1997, 2001 and 2005), they were under-represented in comparison with their share of the vote. That, combined with current electoral forecasts, certainly make ‘why are the Tories against PR’ a good question. The main factor is probably the same as in other countries with majoritarian electoral systems: the possibility that it will lead to majority government. Adopting PR, no matter what variant, will almost certainly abolish that possibility. Taking away any chance a party has to rule on its own is of course something that makes Labour also reluctant at best with regards to electoral reform, but currently there is only one party that truly hates coalition government, and that’s the Conservatives. That said, this is probably still not enough to explain fully why they are so much more adamantly reform than any other party. I suspect that it is partly due to the lingering memory of their good experience with FPTP during the Thatcher years, when they undoubtedly benefited from it to the disadvantage of the split left (particularly in 1983). Support for FPTP has also become part of the Tories’ sense of traditionalism, with the ideal of local representation (which undoubtedly suits the rural part of the parties’ electorate which lives in the larger constituencies) through SMDs together with the (not completely true) idea that this has been the British way of electing the Commons and HM government for centuries, while the suspicion of PR is very much grounded upon the idea that, in the words of Disraeli, ‘England does not love coalitions’ and that coalition governments are somehow less democratic and more dangerous to liberty than single-party majority ones.

  5. The Conservatives may never win another majority government under FPTP. It is even possible that the next UK election could bring a reverse plurality election where they have the most votes, but not the most seats, and even then, would they change their position on the issue. Hopefully the Liberal Democrats are smart and prudent and want to introduce PR for local government elections in England.

    • The Liberal Democrats have shown themselves to be anything but smart and prudent in the very coalition politics they preach the virtues of. Naturally, they want PR at all levels, but it is too late for them to affect any changes at this point. In my opinion they should have pushed for STV in local elections as in the Scottish Labour-Lib Dem coalition, which they would probably have got without a referendum, thus instilling a better electoral system at the local level which in the longer term could serve as an important tool to win people over to electoral reform.

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