There was much excitement yesterday as news leaked that Labour will abstain on James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill on July 5th. That’s a sentence that until a few weeks ago I never thought I’d type because a) Wharton is an almost entirely anonymous MP, notable only for annoying the North East (he’ll be out on his ear in two years) and b) because Private Member’s Bills don’t usually command much attention being, as they are, a form of (often impotent) protest, rather than a realistic attempt at producing legislation. Even parliament’s own website says “as less time is allocated to these Bills, it’s less likely that they will proceed through all the stages”.
They’re one step up from the “parliamentary graffiti” of an EDM, but it’s by no means a big step…
So because Private Member’s Bills rarely amount to much, it’s rare for a party to whip their MPs to stay in Westminster on a Friday (which is usually a constituency day) to argue over a bill that unlikely to amount to a hill of beans. It’s actually Cameron, rather than Miliband (or even Clegg) who is behaving unusually here by implementing a three line whip.
Lets not forget that this whole farrago (or should that be Farrage-o) over Europe came about because Cameron omitted such legislation from his own Queen’s Speech. It’s a piece of parliamentary theatrics that will amount to nothing, except giving the Tory backbenches something to cheer, and buying Cameron some time before his troops inevitably realise they’ve been let down. And considering what a sticky position Cameron is in with his own MPs at the moment, such hassle is still worth it for such meagre gains.
All that Labour are doing is refusing to play the pantomime villain at the Tory Party’s own end of the pier show. If anything, it could be argued that as Private Member’s Bills are so easy to kill off by filibuster, the only interesting thing happening here is that Labour doesn’t want to outright kill this bill.
But nor is Ed Miliband likely to announce a spectacular u-turn and call for an EU referendum either – as much as I and many others in the party might want him to. Those close to the Labour leader could not be clearer in their certainty that calling for a referendum is the wrong approach to take. If the plan is for the party to announce a change of plan at a later stage, this is one hell of a “long con” that he and his team are playing with anyone who queries Labour’s position.
The truth is that Labour’s position stems from one thing alone. Ed Miliband seems never to have wavered in his belief that in May 2015 he will become Prime Minister. And the last thing he wants on his plate for the first 18 months of a Labour government is a messy EU referendum.
Whilst I think he’s missing an opportunity to bolster Labour’s democratic credentials by giving the electorate a say on the Europe question, it’s hard not to admire that level of confidence and focus.