By Jonathan Isaby
At the end of proceedings on the European Union Bill yesterday, there was an opportunity for the Commons to debate and vote on the amendment from Wellingborough MP Peter Bone, which he wrote about here on ConHome last month.
The thrust of his amendment was that an in/out referendum on British membership of the European Union would be triggered if people voted against a transfer of a competency to Brussels under the terms of the new EU Bill.
"Let me explain why the Committee should support my new clause. First, it would not alter in any way the purpose of the European Union Bill. The Bill is designed, under certain circumstances, to give the British people, through a referendum, a say on our relationship with the European Union. My proposal would merely extend the referendum lock, under certain circumstances, to whether we should remain part of the European Union.
"Why do I think that this would improve the Bill? If the British people have a chance to approve or disapprove of a transfer of power in the future, and they say yes, then there is clearly no need for an in/out referendum, as it would show that the British people are happy with their relationship with Europe. If they say no, clearly they are unhappy with a proposed change to the European Union. Surely it is right that the alternative question is then put as to whether the British people wish to remain in the European Union.
"An added advantage is that the in/out referendum would be triggered by an event, not by politicians. In the past, referendums have been timed to favour the proponents of the referendum, not necessarily for the benefit of the British people."
"My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has performed a significant service for us today, because I believe this is the first time since the 1970s that we have had a discussion here about whether the British people should be allowed to decide how they are governed. I believe that we should be an independent country, trading with Europe but governing ourselves. More than that, however, I believe that it is up to the British people to decide how they are governed. Do they prefer to be governed, and have their laws made, by this House, so that they can throw out the people involved if they do not like how those laws are made, or by a qualified majority including 26 other countries? Do they prefer to have those countries decide their laws for them, and to pay £10 billion a year for the privilege? That question is subject to conditions in the new clause, but for the first time since the 1970s, that issue of principle is before us for debate."
But Jacob Rees-Mogg opposed the amendment on the basis that it "makes no sense":
"Under the new clause, we could decide by referendum not to transfer powers, and then follow that up with a vote to stay in altogether. If we vote to stay in altogether, surely we would be signing up to everything with gusto, but that is the last thing we would want to do if we had recently objected to a treaty that gave more powers to the EU. Therefore, if we vote to stay in, we could contradict a no vote that we had just achieved."
"If we have an in/out vote, and it is won by the pro-Europeans, it is a vote for the EU as it exists and with all the powers that it has. Those of us who support this referendum lock Bill do not want further powers going to the EU or to get accidentally into a situation in which we sign up to things we probably opted out of. That is the complication of having an in/out vote that is won by the “in” side but not on the issue discussed and subject to the referendum lock. That is the danger; that is the unintended consequence."
"I agree with many hon. Members that there may well come a time when we would want an in/out referendum, but it needs to come when it has been the subject of important and urgent debate up and down the country; it needs to come when the British electorate are marching to say, “Now is the time to decide whether we should stay in this rotten institution, corrupt as it is, or whether we will put up with it in spite of its corruption, its inconvenience and all the problems associated with it, because there are some marginal trading advantages and we have got a few sanctions against Iran—or whatever the other arguments are in favour of it.” We need to have the referendum at the right time, as a matter of a discussion of and about itself, not as a result of the random collision of atoms and following a debate on something completely separate—for example, a minor extension of some European power or competence."
"I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said about the new clause’s unintended consequences, but I take a slightly different view from him as I think that it is worth supporting, if for no other reason than to send a message to Ministers about what many people in my constituency and of my generation feel about the European Union. I was not born when we last had a referendum on the EU—I am a few years younger than the proposer of the new clause. "
"My generation has had no opportunity through the ballot box to express a view on whether we should remain a member of the European Union, because broadly speaking both parties have always supported membership. My view is firm—I do not think that we should remain a member—but I am not arrogant enough to suggest that it is for me to dictate to the British public. I simply want the British public at some point to have a say on whether we should remain a member of what has become a very interesting institution—as one hon. Member called it."
"The referendums authorised under the Bill are intended to be final decisions. They will give people the opportunity to judge whether a particular proposal to give new powers to the European Union is in the national interest. One of the things that is troubling about the new clause is that it implicitly assumes that those who vote no to a particular proposition also want to challenge the UK’s membership of the EU, but I do not think that that can be taken for granted. As other hon. Members have said, there is a risk that some people could be influenced in how they vote on the substance of a proposal by a calculation of whether it would be likely to produce the end result of an in/out referendum. Such electors might take into account his or her views on the in/out proposal and not just the pros and cons of the measure on which they are being invited to cast a vote.
"I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough overlooks the problem of a possible succession of referendums on Britain’s membership of the EU. It is possible to imagine that under a future Government—not this one—referendums on moving to qualified majority voting for common foreign and security policy and on joining the euro might be scheduled for two successive years. The new clause would leave open the possibility of an in/out referendum after one—or, indeed, both—of those referendums, because under his new clause a rejection of the first proposition would trigger an in/out referendum, which might result in the public deciding to stay in the EU. A second referendum on a treaty change might come forward 12 months later and also be rejected, and then, in the course of less than a year, we would find ourselves with two successive referendums on the UK’s membership of the EU. That is not a sensible way in which to conduct our relationship with the countries of the EU.
"Nor does the new clause address what would happen if there were two questions on a ballot paper in one day, which we debated earlier. Why should a positive vote for one treaty change proposition and a negative vote for a second trigger a referendum? One cannot read into how people cast their votes on treaty change proposals what their view would be of the desirability of a referendum on membership. More fundamentally, however, the new clause does not capture the range of opinions held by the British people."
The Bone amendment was then defeated by 295 votes to 26.
A total of 20 Conservative rebels backed the move:
They were joined by 4 Labour MP and 4 DUP MPs.