This would place Labour in a very awkward position, exposing its deep splits on the issue (highlighted this week by the launch of the Labour for a Referendum group). Indeed, it’s not altogether impossible that there could be enough Labour rebels and supporters in minor parties that the bill could pass.
The release of this draft bill was precipitated by an amendment to the Queen’s Speech motion regretting the absence of an EU referendum bill from Her Majesty’s address. The movers of the amendment – the Conservative MPs Peter Bone and John Baron – do not intend to withdraw it. In essence, an attempt to vote down or amend the Queen’s Speech is a motion of no confidence in the government. It’s hardly news that some Conservative backbenchers are not fans of the coalition, and this amendment should be seen in that light – as effectively a no-confidence motion.
The Conservatives are very badly split, but not (odd as it may seem) on the EU. The key questions for parliamentarians are: “should we have a referendum on leaving the EU?” and “should we attempt to renegotiate before we have that referendum?” The vast majority of Conservatives accept that we must now have a referendum. Some feel there is no chance of a renegotiation achieving anything important, but most believe it’s best to go through the motions of attempting renegotiation to prove that it is fruitless. When the referendum comes, the party may be more split between in-ers and out-ers, but for now almost all are behind the strategy.
The real Conservative split isn’t about the EU. It’s about David Cameron and the coalition. A significant minority of Conservatives now want Cameron replaced and the coalition ended. It seems increasingly unlikely that the coalition can last until 2015, and the odds on Cameron lasting are also lengthening. The Bone/Baron amendment won’t take down the government, but if the economy doesn’t pick up and with it the Conservative opinion poll ratings, Cameron may not make it to defeat in 2015.
On the EU, however, Cameron has long made the mistake of wishing for a magic bullet that would allow him to stop talking about the issue. But his way to a quiet life with his party is to lead the debate. He or William Hague or George Osborne should talk about the EU all the time. The voters may not be that interested, but the Labour party will be. Labour is very badly split on whether to have a referendum (as indeed it is on cutting the deficit). The more Cameron talks about the EU, the more encouraged Labour EU rebels will be.
Banging on about Europe may not be enough to save Cameron. But it may well be his best chance of survival from here.
Andrew Lilico is a columnist for Conservative Home.