EU referendum: Parliamentary growing pains

James Landale
Diplomatic correspondent
@BBCJLandaleon Twitter

  • Published
EU referendum vote

So, in the end, only 27 Conservative MPs rebelled over plans to give the government a free hand in the final weeks of the forthcoming EU referendum campaign.

Not much to see here, you might think, time to move along. And yet what we saw today at Westminster was fascinating, the growing pains of a new parliament on show for all to see.

You had a prime minister, flush with victory, insisting he should have the freedom to campaign in the referendum on the EU in a way that he did not have in last year's vote on Scottish independence.

Penny dropping

Even loyal Tory MPs told me that Mr Cameron should have realised that scrapping purdah outright would provoke opposition and an unnecessary battle with his backbenches.

Those MPs claimed it showed a rather clumsy approach by Downing Street that a more sophisticated operation would have avoided. The PM might have his first genuine mandate but it only goes so far in parliament.

You also heard along the corridors of Westminster the sound of a very large penny dropping, namely that the government no longer has the majority of 80-odd that the Tories enjoyed with the Lib Dems.

With just 12 extra votes to play with, the government has begun walking a narrow path where every division is tight.

Image caption,
Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash discharged himself from hospital to make the Eurosceptic case

MPs and ministers are realising that this will be their lot for the next five years. The trips will be curtailed; the flexibility the whips once offered long gone.

As for the whips, this was their first outing of the parliament. The Conservative whips are quite a new team with not much depth of experience. They are happy they got their business through.

But they might have expended too much personal capital too early. And they will be well aware they won only because Labour abstained. This was just an early skirmish. There will be many other battles to be had when new MPs will be more willing to defy their government.

And as for Labour, we learned perhaps how they will approach opposition, at least until their new leader is elected. They had the chance to defeat a newly elected government on a matter of defendable principle.

Exaggerating numbers

But they chose not to. Some suggested it was because they could not guarantee getting enough Labour MPs in to defeat the government.

There is nothing worse for an opposition than trying to defeat the government and failing. But senior Labour sources insisted this was a deliberate choice to oppose responsibly and reasonably and not duff up the government just because it can.

This may be true but there was clearly a healthy debate within the PLP's upper echelons about whether this was the right choice to make.

And as for the rebels, they insisted they would have had more on their side if there had been a chance of defeating the government. They spoke of the concessions given and the promises of more to come.

But perhaps we learned that they too can be guilty of exaggerating numbers and may have something more to learn about the best way of using parliamentary procedures to best their government.

What impressed me most, though, was the sheer indomitability of Sir William Cash, as we must now call him.

Twenty years ago I watched him and others play havoc during the Maastricht votes. Two decades on, he is still there, fighting his fight.

For the last four days Bill Cash - as we used to call him - has been in hospital with blood poisoning. This morning he discharged himself to come to parliament, walking unsteadily with a severely swollen leg, speaking unusually while sitting down in the Commons.

Young Conservative eurosceptic MPs are sometimes dismissive of the old guard. But few match the perseverance of the 75-year-old MP for Stone.