Apparently Ministers are advised to abstain today on the issue of whether we should have an early referendum on the EU. Let’s look at the case for each possible course of action:
Vote against the proposal to amend the Queen’s speech motion
Conventionally this is what Ministers would do. After all, they framed the Queen’s speech and signed off that it was the right programme for the country. Accepting an amendment implies they were wrong, and should have put a referendum bill in themselves. We know they gave thought to doing so, as they were bombarded with proposals for a referendum from Conservative MPs in good time before they completed the Queen’s speech.
They should vote against if they wish to block any future attempt this Parliament to put a referendum motion and Bill to the Commons. Otherwise they will be accused of u-turn or worse if they fail to vote this amendment down but vote down any attempt to implement its views at a later date. I guess the Lib Dem Ministers will do just this, showing that the Lib Dem party has decisively torn up its pre 2010 election pledge to off an In/Out referendum now it is in more of a position to call one.
Vote for the proposal
Conservative Ministers could vote for the amendment, saying that an In/Out referendum is now Conservative party policy, so to vote against would be bizarre. They could support either an immediate Mandate referendum to get on with negotiaitng a new relationship, or early legislation for the 2017 In/Out or both and be consistent with Conservative policy.
When asked why they were supporting criticism of their own Queen’s Speech, they could argue that it is the Coalition’s Queen’s speech, which is why it does not in this area reflect Conservative policy. Different rules surely apply to Coalition government than have applied to single party government in the past. The Lib Dems after all changed their voting on cutting the number of MPs despite prior Coalition agreement.
Abstention overcomes the problem of being seen to criticise their own Coalition Queen’s speech, whilst avoiding having to vote against official Conservative policy. Ministers are likely to see it as the least bad compromise.
It also means that the attitude of Labour is in the spotlight, as Labour can determine the outcome if most Ministers abstain. Unfortunately as Labour now looks likely to vote against it, it seems the amendment to the Queen’s speech is doomed.
The danger of Lib Dems and Labour being against a referendum, and Conservative Ministers feeling they have to abstain, is that Parliament fails to reflect the majority wish to the voters.