In the post-war era, the issue of European integration has been a fault line of British politics. Both main parties have been divided internally and both have changed their stance on the issue. However, there has been no formal requirement for a referendum on the issue. Harold Wilson used a nation-wide referendum, a constitutional innovation, in 1975 in order to resolve conflict within the Labour Party. David Cameron moved to initiate one in response to conflict within Conservative ranks. The roots are to be found in the last Parliament. Details can be found in the chapters by Phil Cowley and me in Seldon and Finn’s The Coalition Effect.
There was no commitment in the Conservative 2010 manifesto to a referendum on continued membership of the EU. The crucial development was the decision of the newly-formed Backbench Business Committee to schedule a debate, initiated by Conservative MP David Nuttall, in October 2011, calling for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Had the Committee not come into existence the previous year, with responsibility for scheduling debates (which it did on the basis of proposals from private Members), there would almost certainly not have been a debate – the Government would not have found time for it. Despite a heavy whipping operation against the motion, 81 Conservatives voted for it.
The size of the rebellion clearly alarmed No.10. Having worked to keep his Liberal Democrat allies on side, David Cameron now moved to keep his own backbenchers on side. He made the case for negotiating reform within the EU and putting the terms to the people in a referendum. However, committed Eurosceptic backbenchers wanted legislation to provide for a referendum in the next Parliament. They took the remarkable step of moving an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2013 regretting the absence of any mention of a referendum Bill. To assuage the rebels, the leadership changed tack and offered support for a Private Member’s Bill on the subject. Despite this, the rebels divided the House on the amendment. Although defeated by 277 votes to 130, a total of 114 Conservatives voted for it. This spurred No. 10 to further action, producing a draft Bill, which backbencher James Wharton, successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills, introduced. A Conservative, but not a Government, three-line whip was issued in support of the measure. (Contrast this with a three-line whip against Nuttall’s motion.) The PM held a barbecue for Tory MPs and peers and tried to do what he could to facilitate the Bill’s passage. He was, in effect, committed. There was little likelihood of the Bill getting through – a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers saw to that – but the PM had little option but to pursue the issue. It became a commitment in the party’s 2015 manifesto (an in-out referendum by 2017), the party won the general election and the rest is now, well, history.
We may have ended up sooner or later with a referendum, but had the Backbench Business Committee not selected David Nuttall’s motion for debate when it did, then the course of history may have been different. And don’t say what happens in the House of Commons doesn’t matter.