Hague’s fibs by David Lipsey
Diplomats are famously allowed to lie for their country; but a foreign secretary who tells porkies for his party is a different thing. No other epithet will do for Willliam Hague’s claim that it is “antics” by Labour and Lib Dem peers in the Lords that mean that the bill providing for a 2017 referendum on Europe is unlikely to pass tin this parliamentary session.
The bill is not a government bill. It is a bill drawn up by the Conservative party and whisked through the House of Commons with the Lib Dems and Labour sitting on their hands. And so it is the job of the House of Lords to do what it does to every piece of legislation: to scrutinise its provisions in detail in a bid to improve the Bill. When we have finished with it – and as its mover, Lord Dobbs said on Friday, we have made “very good progress” – we will send it back to the House of Commons which can either accept or reject our proposed amendments.
The Commons may have a problem completing this process. This is because the bill was introduced very late in the session, as a private members bill, with the support of only one coalition party. The Commons could make more time for it if it wished to – but would the Tories have enough votes to get this procedural legerdemain agreed? It may indeed therefore be stalled, but that is not the fault of the Lords. If the Commons does not want to make time for the bill, that is entirely a matter for them.
The suggestion that this is a Labour/Lib Dem plot does not hold water either. The most significant amendment carried on the first day of the Lords’ detailed consideration was moved by Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, a former cabinet secretary who sits as a crossbencher. It substitutes for the question in the bill dreamed up by its Tory sponsors the question recommended by the Electoral Commission, the independent body responsible for advising on such questions. In other words we substituted the umpire’s impartial decision for the partisan decision of the bill’s mover – hardly “antics”. The second amendment carried provided for a proper impact assessment of the bill before the referendum is held.. Only a partisan Tory or a fanatic anti-European could deny that these changes improved the bill.
Many susbsequent amendments have the support of crossbench peers, including Lord Kerr, a former head of the foreign office. Others were supported by a rebel Tory and a Welsh nationalist peer. One lobby was stuffed with peers of all parties and none; the other exclusively with Tories who looked increasingly grim-faced as the mover was humiliated in argument from all quarters of the House.
There has been no filibustering. Exceptionally, the house sat for nearly three hours beyond the 3.00 normal rising time for a Friday to get on with the bill last week. There was only one speech in that time that exceeded the usual time limit and that was made by Lord Mackay, a former Lord Chancellor, who (with interruptions) took 35 minutes to explain why he supported the bill.
Nor incidentally are these debates a Eurofanatic plot. I for example participated in the debate on the referendum question on Friday. I voted “no” to Europe in the 1975 referendum, and if in due course there is another referendum , I would expect to vote for Britain to get out.
It isn’t a referendum I am against; or Europe I am for. It is this dog’s breakfast of a bill, dreamed up and exhibited wholly for the partisan purpose of allowing the Tories to for once display a veneer of unity on Europe. It disgraces them; and it disgraces the Foreign Secretary who accuses others of antics.