UK Politics

Stratagems and spoils

So far in 2013, the Coalition has had its first complete split over the parliamentary boundaries review (29 January), seen 116 Conservative MPs vote for a motion regretting the lack of an EU referendum in the Queen's Speech and then seen 135 and then 133 Conservative MPs vote against the bill to allow gay marriage (5 February and then 21 May)…

The last two may have been free votes, but the scale of both hardly bodes well for the prime minister, or the government he leads...the troops knew perfectly well where their leader stood on both issues. And those last running sores, the referendum and gay marriage, will continue to ooze when Parliament returns in June.

First up is the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which has its second reading in the Lords on Monday 3 June. I suspect it will survive broadsides from the Bishops' bench and from many Conservative peers (and it will be interesting to see what the crossbenchers do) but it's not so much the majority as the repetition of the same old arguments and grievances that's the problem for the government. They must be hoping their lordships don't make any big changes which force them into a long battle with the Upper House, with ping-pong continuing over weeks.

A little further along, on 5 July, there'll be the second reading of James Wharton's private member's bill on an EU referendum - which will be pretty much the draft bill published by the Conservatives earlier this month.

There will be a three-line whip for Tory MPs, and unless pretty much everyone who's not a Conservative votes against, it will get that second reading and go forward to committee stage.

Expect rebels across all parties - and I mean "all". There was even one Lib Dem signatory to the Queen's Speech amendment, and a couple of Lib Dems have a eurosceptic tinge to their views; there are rather more Labour eurosceptics, and I suppose it is conceivable that some members of the lost tribe of Tory europhiles might surface; or at least be detained by unavoidable constituency business/dental appointments etc.

The only larger party that seems pretty united on this is the DUP. So the division lists will be fascinating. In particular, it will be interesting to see how the Tories who saw UKIP do particularly well in their seats respond…not least since one of UKIP's best results was in Aylesbury, the constituency represented by the Europe Minister, David Lidington.

I suspect the Conservative whips, with a bit of tactical advice from private members' bill specialists like Christopher Chope and Peter Bone, will find ways to keep the bill alive and on the floor of the House for far longer than would normally be possible, to maximise the discomfort of the other parties, and keep the troops happy (or at least happier).

Expect to see other Conservatives with private member's bills giving up their debating time to allow Mr Wharton to keep going. But eventually a crunch point may well arrive, when no more private member's bill time can be finagled, and the government will then certainly face demands to allocate some of its time to get the bill through - or at least to flush out the other parties and force them to vote it down.

And there will be other ways in which the euro-pot can be kept boiling. Watch out for attempts to set out a reform agenda listing, in detail, the targets for David Cameron's promised renegotiation of Britain's EU membership. It might come from senior ministers showing a little euro-leg to backbenchers, it might come from backbench initiatives like Andrea Leadsom's Fresh Start Group.

And there's another flashpoint.

It's almost impossible to understate the sheer fury being generated by HS2 - the proposal for a y-shaped high speed railway linking London, Birmingham and then Sheffield and Manchester.

Constituency MPs who have the proposed line running through their patch are taking a lot of heat, and the government can expect a considerable revolt when it brings its High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill before the Commons. This is a kind of John the Baptist measure, designed to make straight the way for the greater bill to come, which will actually set out and authorise the final scheme.

The Preparation Bill will allow the government to start spending substantial amounts of money drawing up the detailed route and making some compulsory land purchases. It's an ominous sign for ministers that the redoubtable Bill Cash is leading a working party of backbenchers from all sides, who're determined to extract more generous compensation terms from the government: so generous, in fact, that they might add enough costs to scupper the bill.

So what could David Cameron do, to soothe all this angst? Well, he might try turning up for PMQs from time to time. The sour little joke doing the rounds in Portcullis House is that a commemorative mug will be issued to mark his next appearance. The PM probably wins more of his jousts with Ed Miliband than he loses, and the troops might be cheered if they have something to cheer.

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