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  • Writer's picturePaul

Quick thoughts on the latest developments in Westminster

The Government has won the votes on its Queens Speech. I suspect it would have been happy to lose them. Boris Johnson has said he will give more time to debate the Withdrawal Agreement Bill - up to Nov 6 - provided MPs support a motion calling for a general election.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s previous red line for agreeing to an election, Labour seems to be backtracking quickly. Labour MPs know what the polls are saying and want to buy more time and amend the Bill in ways that would cause the Government to refuse to take it forward (Customs Union, confirmatory referendum). 

On a second referendum, if a majority in favour were to emerge in the Commons, how deliverable is it?

A referendum needs primary legislation. The Government could refuse to present any Act to the Queen for Royal Assent so it doesn’t become law.

That nuclear option aside, a referendum also costs money and therefore needs a ‘money resolution’ to be passed by the Commons. Money resolutions require the recommendation of the Crown (and so in effect are the preserve of the Government to bring forward).

I suppose MPs could legislate to require the Government to ask the Queen to recommend one, which she would probably feel obliged to do. Or they could change/suspend Commons Standing Order 48. Either way they would need to do away with a founding principle of our constitutional settlement, that the Government holds the purse strings.

Even if they did that, agreeing what question(s) would be put to the public in a referendum is far from straightforward, can significantly impact the outcome and so would lead to very heated debate.

Which brings us to the issue of time. A referendum would take a minimum of around 22 weeks, including the Electoral Commission testing the question with the public to make sure it’s clear, unambiguous and unbiased.

So even if the EU agrees to extend to 31 Jan, it’s difficult to see how a referendum could be held in time, particularly if the Government was implacably opposed to it. Those wanting a referendum would be relying on the EU agreeing to extend yet again. 

Can we really have a government in office, but unable to prosecute its agenda, for 5 months or more with opposition parties unwilling to vote it down? And can we risk more damage to our constitutional arrangements? I can’t see how that could be sustainable or sensible. Something surely has to give.


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