Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Nine months to force a referendum

William Hague, according to The Daily Mail is warning that once MPs return from Parliament's summer recess they will have only nine working days to debate the treaty before it is signed off by Brown in October.

The number of times this treaty has been "signed off" is really quite remarkable: by far the bulk of the media was convinced that this was to happen back in June. But, of course, Brown is no more going to sign a treaty in October than did Blair did in June.

What happens in October is that, if all goes well for the "colleagues", Brown and the representatives from the other 26 member states will agree in principle a final text. But the formal signing will not be until December and then the treaty must be ratified, a process which will take many months.

Thus, while Hague's "warning" is being taken as a signal that there are only nine days to force a referendum – redolent his disastrous 2001 general election strategy when he declared that there were "seven days to save the pound" – the reality is very different.

For a start, even the nine working days in parliament before Brown goes to the IGC summit is of little relevance. Traditionally, only one day is made over for a debate prior to such events, usually the week of the summit, a debate which, incidentally, is very often sparsely attended. Thus, as long as the tradition is observed, there is nothing untoward in there being only nine days of parliamentary time.

Then, Brown will give a report to the Commons when he returns, giving another opportunity for a debate. Following that, there will be plenty of chances to hold debates before the treaty is signed in December, not forgetting prime minister's questions.

Once the treaty is signed, of course, a Bill is laid before Parliament to amend the ECA thereby ratifying the treaty, the progress of which through both Houses will take at least six months. During that process there will be dozens of debates. And it is during that process that the opposition can - and most likely will, in the Lords - raise an amendment making the enactment of the Bill conditional on a referendum. It is then that there will be the big fight, if there is one at all.

What that says is that there is a 8-10 month "window" to campaign for a referendum. The game is not over until or unless a Lords amendment has been tabled and then rejected by both Houses. The more accurate time frame, therefore, is that we have not nine days but nine months to force a referendum.


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