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29 October 2019

Are the Liberal Democrats really trying to block votes for 16-year-olds?

No. But it will suit them much better if Boris Johnson's election bill is not amended to extend the franchise.

By Patrick Maguire

Could the Liberal Democrats and SNP end up voting against votes for 16-year-olds and EU nationals today? Labour plans to amend Boris Johnson’s election legislation to extend the franchise to both groups – a policy that, in ordinary times, both of their opposition rivals support, too.

But neither Jo Swinson nor Ian Blackford plans to amend the bill to that effect. Labour sources whisper that the Liberal Democrats have gone as far as to lobby John Bercow, the Speaker, not to accept either amendment which, if selected and passed, would result in the government pulling the legislation altogether. 

So what are Swinson and Blackford playing at? Senior Liberal Democrat sources angrily dismiss the suggestion that they are conspiring to block the amendments as “total shit”. They say that neither Swinson nor Alistair Carmichael, her chief whip the only two members of the Lib Dem parliamentary party with regular access to the Speaker have made entreaties.

If Labour’s amendments are selected, the Liberal Democrats will vote for them. Given the bill’s narrow scope, they do not think they will be eligible for selection especially given that Lindsay Hoyle, Bercow’s procedurally conservative deputy, will be the one making the call.

But they do not want to force that situation themselves, despite supporting the policy. Realistically, today’s vote is the last viable opportunity for MPs to trigger a December election. If they do not take it  or jeopardise it by turning the legislation into something Johnson cannot support then the chances of Brexit on 31 January rise exponentially. 

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That is one risk that neither Swinson nor Nicola Sturgeon, both of whom want and arguably need to go to the country with the question of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU unresolved, can afford to take.