The Leave campaign’s victory in the EU referendum manufactured headlines around the world, but how did it all come about?
When the time comes to erect heroic bronze statues to heroes of Brexit, I have a couple of left-field nominations: Tony Wright and John Bercow.
Between them they created the parliamentary channels through which a well-organised band of backbench insurgents made relentless pres on David Cameron to hold an EU referendum – systematically boxing him into the commitment which was fulfilled on 23 June.
One of its most important artilleries in their Commons campaigning was the brainchild of Labour’s Tony Wright. A politic prof, he chaired the Reform of the House of Commons Committee from 2008 to 2009. His brief, for responding to the expenses gossip, was to devise a packet of reforms to increase the standing of MPs.
He came up with the Backbench Business Committee, which would have the power to choose themes for debates on vote-able actions on the storey of the Commons – when previously all major debates had been staged by the government or opposition parties.
It turned out to be crucial. “If we hadn’t had the Backbench Business Committee, I don’t conclude the referendum would have happened, ” told Brexit campaigner and Tory MP Peter Bone.
At the time, I’m sure that the Labour and Conservative whips’ powers expected the result would be a couple of thinly attended debates on niche issues at the fag-end of the parliamentary week.
But others checked the potential. In particular, a group of hardline Tory backbenchers checked instantly that the Wright reforms could become a major instrument in their expedition to ensure Mr Cameron’s coalition did not drift away from their form of true-life Conservative appreciates, and including with regard to to ensure “soundness” on Europe.
There was a core group of awkward squad MPs centred around Steve Baker, John Baron, Peter Bone, Douglas Carswell, Chris Chope, Philip Hollobone, David Nuttall and Mark Reckless, although others would stray in and out.
They would match for the purposes of an hour, every Tuesday morning at 08:30 in Room R, an out-of-the-way committee area in the parliamentary power house, Portcullis House, to go through the Commons agenda, searching opportunities to push their own views, and agree on tactics. “It never, never, never leaked, ” Bone recalled.
One point to note is the lack of big names – no grandiose ex-cabinet ministers or leader candidates were part of this core operation; if they had been it would have looked like an embryonic leader campaign for some King Over The Water, instantaneously alienating rival claimants for the leadership of the Tory Right, and their partisans.
So, while different groups insisted diplomatic relations with the likes of David Davis and John Redwood, it shunned a full espouse of any of them.
On the government side, the flogs spotted there was an organised low-key insurgency under way, but, as one senior illustration now declares, they didn’t spot how organised and even more importantly how tactical the whole employ was. To some extent they rejected the group as chronic conspirators with meter on their hands, because they had no the expectations of preferment under the Cameron leadership.
Early on, different groups swooped to get Mr Bone and Mr Hollobone on to the Backbench Business Committee, along with the more maverick Philip Davies – where they would be well-placed to push for debates that furthered an agenda item.
And the other important illustration was a likable Labour MP in the chair, in the form of Natascha Engel.
For a while they bided their meter, but behind the scenes they drew up a motion calling for a referendum and started accumulating signatures from MPs.
They had to come up with a formation of words which granted all the Large-hearted Animals to sign up – forestalling drawbacks like the idea of a two-stage referendum process, on the relevant principles and then the terms of Brexit.
When a convenient Thursday afternoon slot for a backbench dispute appeared, with no rival contenders, Mr Hollobone hinted the moment had come to strike – and the referendum gesture was put down.
The group then had to propel a beating operation to keep its supporters on-side – as the government countered by declaring a three-line whip against the motion and likewise rescheduled the dispute from a Thursday afternoon to a prime-time Monday afternoon slot.
The task for the Room R radical was to hold the line against determined attempts to weaken it. Here’s an extract from a briefing circulated only Steve Baker – who led their castigation operation and was hailed by the Guido Fawkes website as “Rebel Commander” 😛 TAGEND
“Do people care enough about the questions?
“In every constituency, voters are signing the People’s Pledge, promising to support candidates who give them an In/ Out referendum. More than twice as many people want a referendum on leaving the EU as wanted one on the voting system. More people were represented at the People’s Pledge Congress on Saturday than have been complaining at St Paul’s , notwithstanding the relative coverage.
“On 25 September, at least 40,000 motorcyclists took part in Motorcycle Action Group’s nationwide declaration, ‘EU Hands Off Biking. The only question that matters today is whether our position in the EU is a proper subject for a referendum. One road or another, all three defendants have previously said that it is.”
What seems to have happened next is that a lot of Republican backbenchers went back to their constituencies, talked to their association the chairpersons and returned, emboldened, to vote for the gesture.
On the day, 25 October 2011, the dispute was opened by radical member David Nuttall – a 2010 uptake MP who had already established himself as one of the most rebellious occupants of the Tory terraces. He rebuffed the statement that this was not the right time to discuss the issue and told even if the gesture was guided, it would be years before a referendum was held.
The three-line whip meant that any members of the government who backed the gesture would have to resign and two unpaid parliamentary private secretaries, Stewart Jackson, and Adam Holloway, duly fell on their swords.
They were among 81 Tory backbenchers who supported the gesture – including some whose corroborate came as a surprise to the core group. It was a classic precedent of a government acquiring a election but losing the policies of an issue. In a previous parliamentary age, there would not have been such a direct route for the growing head of Eurosceptic steam inside the Conservative Party to evidence itself.
Perhaps that pres would have found another way to escape, but Dr Wright’s creation granted a Commons show of fortitude that the prime minister has not been able to dismis and which clothed the Room R radical in new credibility.
It kept up the pressure. The other members, John Baron, propelled awareness-raising campaigns insisting Mr Cameron “to place on the Statute book before the next general election a commitment to hold a referendum during the course of its next Parliament on the nature of our relations with the European Union”.
Nearly 100 Tory MPs signed a character backing the idea – the thinking being that while the Lib Dems and Labour might vote a referendum greenback down, they would made themselves firmly on the wrong side of public opinion in the process, while the Tories would pre-empt UKIP and give themselves its significant unique selling detail at the general election.
Finally in January 2013 the prime minister extradited his Bloomberg lecture. He’d met radical members at Downing Street the previous evening and “ve told them” they would like what he had to say. But even so the extent of his commitment came as a bombshell: “Democratic approval for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin …
“Simply requesting the British people to carry on admitting a European colonization over which they have had little select is a route to ensuring that when the issues to is lastly made – and at some stagecoach it will have to be – it is much more likely that the British people will reject the EU.
“That is why I am in favor of a referendum. I believe in confronting this issue – shaping it, passing the dispute. Not simply hoping a difficult position will go away.”
Those words returned Mr Cameron a measure of serenity( at least on Euro-issues, there used to be slew of other uprisings) but no referendum greenback would be approved by his Lib Dem Coalition marriages.
And here is where Mr Speaker Bercow enters our narration, with a decree on an apparently in-house edition that probably ranks as the single most important decision of his speakership. He granted an additional amendment to the Queen’s Speech, straining the terms of Commons Standing Order 33 perhaps beyond breaking point in the process.
Here is the rationalization he contributed when, ever so politely, his decree was questioned by the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley: “Conditions and apprehensions today are very different from those working in October 1979, when that Standing Prescribe was drawn.
“I must tell the House that I have studied the wording of Standing Order Number 33 very carefully. My reading is that the words ‘a further amendment’ in the fifth boundary of the Standing Order may be read as applying to more than one amendment successively.
“In other words, simply one amendment selected by me is being moved at any time. Once that amendment is disposed of, a further amendment has the potential to be called.”
That ruling cleared the road for the group to go the near-unprecedented step of moving an amended Queen’s Speech, regretting the non-appearance of any referendum greenback.
A parliamentary chain reaction followed. It promptly became clear that more than 100 Republican MPs would vote for the amendment, so Mr Cameron side-stepped and announced the Conservative Party would back a private member’s greenback to contained a referendum by 2017, and even publicized a draft bill.
When the 2013 referendum for private members’ statutes was support, James Wharton was the top-ranking Tory – and within hours he announced he would attempt to get the Referendum Bill into constitution. His greenback did eventually clear the Commons, but moved aground in the Lords, and the following year a similar fate happen an same greenback from Bob Neill.
By that time Mr Cameron was cornered into a referendum promise, which became a key plank of his 2015 election manifesto. And the rest is history.
But there’s likewise a reading for the future. A small-scale, smart, savvy radical can exert huge leverage over Parliament, even in the teeth of every aid a government can deploy.
And there’s nothing in Commons Standing Guilds that remarks simply Brexiteers can do that.