26th May 2020


British MPs vote on EU referendum

  • Amended or not, the motion does not call for an In/Out referendum and this has been ignored by the media (Photo: Paul Vallejo)

On Monday afternoon (24 October) the House of Commons will be debating the question whether there should be a referendum on Britain’s membership and position in the European Union. Matters to do with the EU have been debated in both the Commons and the Lords at various times but there has not been a debate in either House on whether there should be a referendum in the country since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

All three main parties had promised a referendum on the Constitution for Europe but the Labour Government announced, in defiance of a Commons Select Committee Report, that the Lisbon Treaty was sufficiently different to make a referendum unnecessary. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, promised a referendum on the treaty if the Conservatives win the election and the Liberal-Democrats suggested an In/Out one. Many analysts think that reneging on the promise to hold that referendum on the Lisbon Treaty deprived David Cameron and the Conservatives of the necessary support for them to win outright in the 2010 General Election.

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The campaign for an In/Out referendum on the EU has been gathering pace in the country, with 100,000 people recently signing an e-petition for the Commons to hold a debate on the subject. On Saturday there was a well-attended all-day conference in Westminster in which speakers from all parties and groups from every part of the political spectrum called for a referendum. A motion was put down by a Conservative Backbench MP, David Nuttall, and signed by numerous other MPs from all parties.

This is not a debate to hold a referendum, merely a call upon the government (if the motion is passed) to pass legislation in the next session of Parliament to hold a referendum. In order to have any referendum in the UK, full or partial, there needs to be parliamentary legislation. The next session will open next spring, as the coalition government decided not to have the state opening this autumn.

The referendum proposed in the motion is a three-option one: staying in, pulling out and renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU. There are also various amendments put down by other MPs, including the Green, Caroline Lucas, and another Conservative, George Eustice, which aim to water down the motion even further. Amended or not, the motion does not call for an In/Out referendum and this has been ignored by the media.

The leaders of the three main parties have called on their members to oppose the motion in its entirety. David Cameron expressed the view that this is not the time to start discussing Britain’s membership; other politicians think that with the eurozone’s many problems and the growing disenchantment with the EU across various member states, this is precisely the time to think about it. The latter maintain that the majority of the country’s population want to withdraw.

In fact, opinion poll evidence for this is contradictory and the result of a three-option referendum is not easy to predict, though there is indication that the third option, renegotiation, would have more support than the other two. The difficulty there is explaining to people the severe limitations on the possibility of any meaningful renegotiation of the terms of membership and the consequent disenchantment by the electorate if they find that they had voted for something that cannot be put into place.

The motion is non-binding – the government can ignore it even if it is passed but it is unwise for any government to ignore the clearly expressed will of the House of Commons. The question is whether it will be passed.

At present around 70 Conservative MPs have signed the motion and it is expected that they will vote for it, together with some from other parties but it does not look like the necessary majority will be mustered unless there is an even larger rebellion in at least one of the main parties. Nor does it look likely that any of the amendments will be passed but debating them will take up all the afternoon and evening. It is expected that the House will divide for a final vote (there may well be earlier votes on the various amendments) at around 10 o’clock.

Helen Szamuely is a writer and researcher on political affairs, based in London


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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