Brexit: How rebel MPs outfoxed Cameron to get an EU referendum
The Leave campaign’s victory in the EU referendum made headlines around the world, but how did it all come about?
When the time comes to erect heroic bronze statues to heroes of Brexit, I have a couple of left-field nominations: Tony Wright and John Bercow.
Between them they created the parliamentary channels through which a well-organised band of backbench guerrillas put relentless pressure on David Cameron to hold an EU referendum – systematically boxing him into the commitment which was fulfilled on 23 June.
One of the key weapons in their Commons campaigning was the brainchild of Labour’s Tony Wright. A politics professor, he chaired the Reform of the House of Commons Committee from 2008 to 2009. His brief, in response to the expenses scandal, was to devise a package of reforms to increase the standing of MPs.
He came up with the Backbench Business Committee, which would have the power to choose subjects for debates on vote-able motions on the floor of the Commons – when previously all major debates had been staged by the government or opposition parties.
It turned out to be crucial. “If we hadn’t had the Backbench Business Committee, I don’t think the referendum would have happened,” said Brexit campaigner and Tory MP Peter Bone.
At the time, I’m sure that the Labour and Conservative whips’ offices expected the result would be a couple of thinly attended debates on niche issues at the fag-end of the parliamentary week.
But others saw the potential. In particular, a group of hardline Tory backbenchers saw immediately that the Wright reforms could become a major instrument in their campaign to ensure Mr Cameron’s coalition did not drift away from their version of true Conservative values, and in particular to ensure “soundness” on Europe.
There was a core group of awkward squad MPs centred around Steve Baker, John Baron, Peter Bone, Douglas Carswell, Chris Chope, Philip Hollobone, David Nuttall and Mark Reckless, although others would drift in and out.
They would meet for an hour, every Tuesday morning at 08:30 in Room R, an out-of-the-way committee room in the parliamentary office building, Portcullis House, to go through the Commons agenda, seeking opportunities to push their views, and agree on tactics. “It never, never, never leaked,” Bone recalled.
One point to note is the lack of big names – no grand ex-cabinet ministers or leadership candidates were part of this core operation; if they had been it would have looked like an embryonic leadership campaign for some King Over The Water, instantly alienating rival claimants for the leadership of the Tory Right, and their followers.
So, while the group maintained diplomatic relations with the likes of David Davis and John Redwood, it avoided a full embrace of any of them.
On the government side, the whips spotted there was an organised low-key insurgency under way, but, as one senior figure now admits, they didn’t spot how organised and more importantly how strategic the whole exercise was. To some extent they dismissed the group as chronic conspirators with time on their hands, because they had no hope of preferment under the Cameron leadership.
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Early on, the group swooped to get Mr Bone and Mr Hollobone on to the Backbench Business Committee, along with the more maverick Philip Davies – where they would be well-placed to push for debates that furthered its agenda.
And the other important figure was a sympathetic Labour MP in the chair, in the shape of Natascha Engel.
For a while they bided their time, but behind the scenes they drew up a motion calling for a referendum and started accumulating signatures from MPs.
They had to come up with a form of words which allowed all the Big Beasts to sign up – avoiding pitfalls like the idea of a two-stage referendum process, on the principle and then the terms of Brexit.
When a convenient Thursday afternoon slot for a backbench debate appeared, with no rival contenders, Mr Hollobone suggested the moment had come to strike – and the referendum motion was put down.
The group then had to launch a whipping operation to keep its supporters on-side – as the government countered by declaring a three-line whip against the motion and also rescheduled the debate from a Thursday afternoon to a prime-time Monday afternoon slot.
The task for the Room R group was to hold the line against determined attempts to erode it. Here’s an extract from a briefing circulated by Steve Baker – who led their whipping operation and was hailed by the Guido Fawkes website as “Rebel Commander”:
“Do people care enough about the issue?
“In every constituency, voters are signing the People’s Pledge, promising to support candidates who give them an In/Out referendum. More than twice as many people want a referendum on leaving the EU as wanted one on the voting system. More people attended the People’s Pledge Congress on Saturday than have been protesting at St Paul’s, notwithstanding the relative coverage.
“On 25 September, at least 40,000 motorcyclists took part in Motorcycle Action Group’s nationwide protest, ‘EU Hands Off Biking. The only question that matters today is whether our position in the EU is a proper subject for a referendum. One way or another, all three parties have previously said that it is.”
What seems to have happened next is that a lot of Conservative backbenchers went back to their constituencies, talked to their association chairmen and returned, emboldened, to vote for the motion.
On the day, 25 October 2011, the debate was opened by group member David Nuttall – a 2010 intake MP who had already established himself as one of the most rebellious occupants of the Tory benches. He rejected the argument that this was not the right time to discuss the issue and said even if the motion was passed, it would be years before a referendum was held.
The three-line whip meant that any members of the government who backed the motion would have to resign and two unpaid parliamentary private secretaries, Stewart Jackson, and Adam Holloway, duly fell on their swords.
They were among 81 Tory backbenchers who supported the motion – including some whose support came as a surprise to the core group. It was a classic example of a government winning a vote but losing the politics of an issue. In a previous parliamentary era, there would not have been such a direct route for the growing head of Eurosceptic steam inside the Conservative Party to manifest itself.
Perhaps that pressure would have found another way to escape, but Dr Wright’s creation allowed a Commons show of strength that the prime minister could not ignore and which clothed the Room R group in new credibility.
It kept up the pressure. Another member, John Baron, launched a campaign urging Mr Cameron “to place on the Statute Book before the next general election a commitment to hold a referendum during the next Parliament on the nature of our relationship with the European Union”.
Nearly 100 Tory MPs signed a letter backing the idea – the thought being that while the Lib Dems and Labour might vote a referendum bill down, they would put themselves firmly on the wrong side of public opinion in the process, while the Tories would pre-empt UKIP and give themselves an important unique selling point at the general election.
Finally in January 2013 the prime minister delivered his Bloomberg speech. He’d met group members at Downing Street the previous evening and told them they would like what he had to say. But even so the extent of his commitment came as a surprise: “Democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin…
“Simply asking the British people to carry on accepting a European settlement over which they have had little choice is a path to ensuring that when the question is finally put – and at some stage it will have to be – it is much more likely that the British people will reject the EU.
“That is why I am in favour of a referendum. I believe in confronting this issue – shaping it, leading the debate. Not simply hoping a difficult situation will go away.”
Those words brought Mr Cameron a measure of peace (at least on Euro-issues, there were plenty of other rebellions) but no referendum bill would be approved by his Lib Dem Coalition partners.
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And here is where Mr Speaker Bercow enters our story, with a ruling on an apparently in-house issue that probably ranks as the single most important decision of his speakership. He allowed an extra amendment to the Queen’s Speech, stretching the terms of Commons Standing Order 33 probably beyond breaking point in the process.
Here is the explanation he gave when, ever so politely, his ruling was questioned by the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley: “Conditions and expectations today are very different from those in October 1979, when that Standing Order was made.
“I must tell the House that I have studied the wording of Standing Order Number 33 very carefully. My interpretation is that the words ‘a further amendment’ in the fifth line of the Standing Order may be read as applying to more than one amendment successively.
“In other words, only one amendment selected by me is being moved at any time. Once that amendment is disposed of, a further amendment may then be called.”
That ruling cleared the way for the group to take the near-unprecedented step of moving an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, regretting the non-appearance of any referendum bill.
A parliamentary chain reaction followed. It quickly became clear that more than 100 Conservative MPs would vote for the amendment, so Mr Cameron side-stepped and announced the Conservative Party would back a private member’s bill to hold a referendum by 2017, and even published a draft bill.
When the 2013 ballot for private members’ bills was held, James Wharton was the top-ranking Tory – and within minutes he announced he would attempt to get the Referendum Bill into law. His bill did eventually clear the Commons, but ran aground in the Lords, and the following year a similar fate befell an identical bill from Bob Neill.
By that time Mr Cameron was cornered into a referendum promise, which became a key plank of his 2015 election manifesto. And the rest is history.
But there’s also a lesson for the future. A small, smart, savvy group can exert huge leverage over Parliament, even in the teeth of every resource a government can deploy.
And there’s nothing in Commons Standing Orders that says only Brexiteers can do that.
- 29 December 2016
- From the sectionParliaments