Finding time for the EU Referendum Bill

As the James Wharton EU Referendum Bill inches through its Committee Stage consideration, attention's beginning to shift to its return to the Commons, now pencilled in for Friday November 8th. This will be the start of its Report Stage, and offers opponents their best chance of stopping the Bill.

The first set of manoeuvres is around the batting order for debate that day: would it be possible to put down private members bills for second reading, which could use up the available time. It turns out that the answer to that question is "No."

There have been attempts to get Labour bills onto the order paper, on the basis that Tory MPs can be persuaded to drop their private members bills, but Labour MPs will be impervious to such persuasion, and that these could be used to absorb the time available.

But that stratagem has run straight into Standing Order 14 (10).

This makes it clear that Mr Wharton's Bill will have pole position. "On and after the eighth Friday on which private Members' bills have precedence, such bills shall be arranged on the order paper in the following order: consideration of Lords amendments, third readings, consideration of reports not already entered upon, adjourned proceedings on consideration, bills in progress in committee, bills appointed for committee, and second readings."

Since Mr Wharton's Bill is the first Private members Bill, there are no Lords Amendments to consider, and there are no Third Readings.

So, as the first Bill to emerge from Committee Stage, and start its Report Stage, his EU Referendum Bill will definitely be debated first, before any other business is reached (that includes, for example, the Second Readings of Phillip Hollobone's Residential Roads (adoption by Local Authorities) Bill and Peter Bone's Margaret Thatcher Day Bill).

The snag is that his opponents will undoubtedly put down as many amendments as they can devise - and these amendments will have to be debated - and there may be several days' worth.

While Mr Wharton will have the support of his party whip, and will certainly be able to muster the 100 MPs needed to curtail debate, the chair will not normally entertain what's known as a "closure motion," until there has been a reasonable amount of debate on each group of amendments - a couple of hours, at least.

So he's unlikely to be able to clear more than two groups of amendments between the 9.30am start of Friday business and the 2.30pm close. So at least one more Private Members Bill Friday - and probably more - will be needed.

Mr Wharton's Bill should continue to have precedence, especially if efforts are made to string out the Committee Stages of other Private Members Bills, so they can't compete for time. Or to stop them going into Committee altogether...

Tory members support their colleague Jonathan Lord's Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill, which is due for a Second Reading debate on Friday this week. So they won't stop it, but may seek to ensure that it lingers in Committee for quite a while.

But I rather suspect the Lib Dem Sir Robert Smith's Bill on delivery surcharges may be a casualty.

First Conservative members will keep the debate on the Armed Forces Bill going as long as possible (although it's quite tightly drafted, and it may be hard to drone on for very long without being ruled out of order by the Chair) and then they will seek to talk out Sir Robert's bill - that is prolong the debate and prevent the Bill being voted on, until time runs out.

For the Conservatives, the political imperative is to get Mr Wharton's Bill through and they will be willing to sacrifice other private members bills that might compete with it for debating time, and whip their MPs to attend on a Friday.

And if they can overcome the cunning tactical moves of their opponents and get the Bill to Third Reading, they should be able to send it off to the House of Lords - where a new set of opponents will be waiting.