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The debate begins… sort of

Posted by Richard Tuesday, February 01, 2005

It appears that there is going to be an early debate on the EU constitution in parliament after all. Stung, we are told by The Financial Times, by opposition accusations that he wants to bury the debate, he has decided that the ratification Bill will get its second reading on 9 February.

In fact, Straw has been attracting as much criticism from his own side, for the low key approach to the constitution, and it has clearly been getting to him.

His decision risks exposing divisions within the Labour party on the EU, only weeks before the start of a probable general election campaign. The FT estimates that up to 50 backbenchers, mainly traditionalists from the left of the party, might be opposed to the Bill.

However, the government will be imposing a three-line whip on its backbenchers, so the prospect of a revolt is very slim, especially this close to an election. Possibly, only a dozen or so will break ranks and walk through the "no" lobby.

Despite this, the Bill is still unlikely to become law until well after the election, as there are no plans to hold the time-consuming committee stage as more urgent Bills are competing for space for time. The Bill would, therefore, have to be reintroduced after the election, when the new government takes office.

An unnamed "senior Labour official", putting the best gloss on the decision, called the second reading "a useful event". He denied seeking to hide the issue. "The more national debate there is," he said, "the more exposed the fanciful arguments of the 'no' campaign and the Conservative party."

One suspects, though, that there will be a great deal of heat but very little light.