Government whips frantic over EU referendum bid

As predicted the Commons Backbench Business Committee has agreed that MPs should have a debate on holding a referendum on British membership of the EU. The debate will be held next Thursday, the only day the Committee has available to it at the moment.

The motion proposed by the Conservative David Nuttall is that: "This House calls upon the government to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the united Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, leave the European Union, or renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation."

The government whips are said to be frantic. The debate could open new wounds in the coalition and old wounds in the Conservative Party. But given the make up of the Backbench Business Committee (it includes several arch-Eurosceptic Tories) and the fact the referendum debate is exactly the kind of thing the Backbench committee exists to facilitate, it was always going to happen.

The sensible thing for the government to do, if it opposes the motion, as it almost certainly does, is to argue its case. Seeking to quash the debate with some procedural fix - "terribly sorry, but there's this vital debate on the widgets industry we have to hold that day" - would be crass and self-defeating. Trying to limit the time available by asking for five ministerial statements that morning would be almost as silly, and would probably be blocked by the Speaker. So the likely government response is to seek to amend the motion. And since students of the Tory backbenches predict that perhaps 50 MPs may support the referendum call, things could get interesting.

Around 30 Conservatives support outright withdrawal - and perhaps 20 more have supported a referendum in other Commons motions. Taken together, they could cancel out the government's majority, if Labour weighed in alongside them. So Labour's approach to this motion could turn out to be rather less academic than the normal Opposition line. I doubt that Ed Miliband is about to complete a four minute mile up the road to Damascus, and embrace full-on Euroscepticism, but that still leaves room for him to make a bit of mischief and perhaps lever open some coalition and Conservative divisions.

In the meantime watch out for some frantic negotiation over amendments to Mr Nuttall's motion, and for some frantic whipping.