The campaign to give 16 and 17 year-olds the vote in the EU referendum intensified today after Labour unveiled a fresh move to force the Government to change its mind.
Labour’s Baroness Morgan tabled an amendment to the European Union Referendum Bill that sets up yet another huge Lords v Commons clash later this month.
The amendment, which gives the franchise to those “aged 16 or 17 on the date on which the referendum is to be held”, is sure to win the backing of Liberal Democrats, some Tories and crossbenchers at the report stage.
Lib Dem peer Lord Tyler signed the Labour amendment within minutes of it being tabled. A crossbencher is expected to sign up next week and possibly a Tory peer as part of the cross-party campaign.
And with the Lords having an in-built anti-Tory majority, the Government is set to be defeated if it digs in and refuses to extend the vote to teenagers for the referendum, which has to be held by the end of 2017.
The Commons is sure to overturn the amendment, but if the Lords sticks to its guns, David Cameron will have to use the Parliament Act to force through the EU referendum bill unamended.
With No.10 keen to keep open the option of an early referendum in the autumn of 2016, any delay could cause serious timetabling headaches for the Government.
Under the so-called Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords usually refuses to overturn any policy that has been in a governing party’s winning election manifesto.
However, while the Tory manifesto was clear on the need for an EU referendum, it was silent on the age of those who could take part and peers will argue they are ‘improving’, not blocking, the legislation.
No.10 is still likely to view any such move as yet another hostile act from the Lords, which is already facing reforms after it blocked George Osborne’s tax credits cuts recently.
Some Tories inside and outside Government are open to the idea of giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in the referendum, believing it would boost their chances of winning them round as Tory voters in 2020.
Under-18s were given the vote in the Scottish independence referendum and the SNP has been among those who have argued strongly that they should also have a direct say over whether the UK should quit or stay in the EU.
And some Eurosceptics, including the Vote Leave campaign, believe that giving teenagers a say would help their cause, and claim that youngsters are not as pro-EU as many expect.
But Government openness to the idea was undermined when the Electoral Commission this week made clear to peers that extending the franchise could cause a delay of upto a year as teenagers will need to be added to the electoral register.
The BBC’s Newsnight revealed that the Electoral Commission has advised the government that "electoral administrators" would need to enrol hundreds of thousands of new voters.
The Commission believes a six month period of preparation would be needed after the EU Referendum Bill received royal assent and a further six months would then be needed for a mass registration drive.
In a briefing to peers, the Commission wrote: "Any changes to the franchise for the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union should be clear in sufficient time to enable all those who are newly eligible to vote to take the steps they need to successfully register and participate in the referendum."
If the government follows the guidance, then it would effectively rule out the possibility of the EU referendum being held in 2016.
"I'm picking up that even euro-sceptics are interested in lowering the voting age. I would say there are easily more than six or seven MPs who'd be interested in voting for such a measure," Tory MP Neil Carmichael told Newsnight this week.
"If I was Cameron I would say 'this is not a deal breaker, so why don't I just go along with it'".