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David Cameron's Referendum Bill pledge had some success - but why didn't it happen last week?

By Mark Wallace
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Last night's announcement that the Prime Minister would support a backbench EU Referendum Bill had a number of different aims.

In practical terms, he was of course seeking to defuse and even perhaps avert tomorrow's Commons vote on the Bone/Baron amendment to the Queen's Speech. Number 10 hoped the commitment would be sufficient to persuade its supporters there was no need to embarass their leader, and maybe even the amendment's proposers would decide not to push it to a division.

In terms of political perception, he was moving to put himself ahead of a debate that he had spent a week running to catch up with. In effect, he was following Alastair Campbell's old adage that if you're going to end up being forced to do something later on, you may as well be seen to choose to do it now.

He has been partially successful on both counts - but no more than that.

The rebellious backbenchers have divided as a result of the announcement. For a start, with the PM agreeing to their demands it is now rather hard to tell if it still counts as a rebellious amendment or just a superfluous one.

While some still intend to press ahead and vote in favour tomorrow, many influential eurosceptic figures are welcoming the announcement and urging their colleagues to start campaigning for the Bill to be passed. Both Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, for example, have written publicly along those lines - which matters, as they are listened to in numerous eurosceptic tribes and no-one can reasonably call them europhile sell-outs or poodles of the Prime Minister.

In short, support for the amendment has not been extinguished but it is now starting to wane.

Cameron's success on the perception front is less clear. For the first time since Nigel Lawson dropped his bouncing bomb into the EU dam last Tuesday, the news agenda has focused on something David Cameron has done. Being in the US at the moment, it is hard to know how clear his picture of events back home is - there may be some relief at creeping closer to the front foot, but it would be wrong to fly back across the Atlantic thinking that everything is fixed.

It is remarkable to think that despite being in charge of the country, he has been playing catch-up for seven full days to the demands of former ministers and backbenchers. This has been a serious blow to his authority, and questions must be asked as to why the decision to back a Bill wasn't taken last week.

I wrote on Thursday that the rebels hoped that a weekend at home, among local activists would persuade more MPs to support their amendment. So it proved - the extra time allowed their numbers to swell. Our insightful Editor wrote on Friday that the Prime Minister should pledge to support the amendment. And that, too, has come to pass, but only after another three days of carnage.

Last night's announcement could have nipped this in the bud had it taken place before the weekend. Instead, the position of the party leadership changed numerous times before settling on the right policy - by which time damage had been done.

First they were "relaxed". Then their relaxation extended to giving MPs and, reportedly, even ministers a free vote. Indeed, someone apparently briefed the Sun at the end of last week that Cameron himself would be supporting the amendment - even though he was already expected to be out of the country this week.

Then things went into reverse. Ministers were told to abstain, and the low point came on his flight to Washington DC when Cameron's comments came very near to attacking Gove, Hammond and his troublesome backbenchers. He did not go all the way, thankfully - but it should never have come so close, even allowing for the fact that no-one is at their most charitable during long-haul plane journeys.

So a solitary cheer for the right outcome - but a great deal of grief, much of it I suspect still to come, could have been spared had this happened days ago.


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