British PM braced for divisive vote on Europe
Deep anger among Tory MPs as months of simmering tensions spill out into the open
Britain’s Prince Harry and British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) arrive to meet entrepreneurs using London’s new double-decker Routemaster bus, in Manhattan. Photograph: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
David Cameron is braced for another potentially divisive Commons vote on Europe despite publishing a draft Bill paving the way for a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership in the next parliament.
The prime minister insisted he was “profoundly relaxed” about today’s vote on an amendment by Tory Eurosceptics expressing “regret” there was no government Bill for a referendum in the Queen’s speech.
But there was deep anger among Conservative MPs on both sides as months of simmering tensions within the party ranks spilled out into the open.
One leading Eurosceptic denounced Mr Cameron’s handling of the issue as “undignified” while others warned that his concession of draft legislation did not go far enough.
That drew a furious response from former minister Nicholas Soames who warned that the behaviour of Eurosceptics risked reopening bitter divisions.
“I think it is an unnecessary . . . manifestation of our modern political life, that so thin appears to be the trust that not even the prime minister’s word is accepted by members of his own party. I find that in a way frankly offensive,” he said.
“You concede a yard and immediately that is jumped on as not being enough and they want more. I think it is a lunatic way of proceeding. I think the public will look on it and think that we do look as though we don’t know what we are doing.
“This is the most fundamental and important decision this country will have to take for the next generation as to whether or not we are to remain members of the European Union and it isn’t just about adding some silly little clause to the Queen’s speech – an entirely, in my view, improper thing to do in the first place.”
The Conservatives have been forced to release their EU (Referendum) Bill in draft form because their Liberal Democrat coalition partners have refused to allow it to be debated in Government time.
Ministers have suggested that it could be adopted by a Tory backbencher as a private member’s bill – but Eurosceptics complained that it could easily be “talked out” by opponents without full Government support.
Tory backbenchers have been given a free vote on the referendum amendment – although Conservative ministers have been instructed to abstain.
Supporters of the amendment – which would not be binding on ministers – were predicting that about 100 Tory MPs would vote for it in the Commons.
The amendment’s author, John Baron, said that if it was passed it would give the prime minister the authority to defy the Lib Dems and go ahead with a full Government Bill.
“No 10 knows that a private member’s Bill could fail. A far better approach is for the PM to have the courage to support our amendment, which would force Labour and the Liberals to decide,” he said.
“If we won, he would then have the mandate to introduce legislation through the normal channels if he chose to do so.”
Mr Cameron, who will not be back in time for the vote, denied he had been panicked into publishing the draft Bill to quell Tory unrest.
During a round of broadcast interviews he said he had always accepted the need to do whatever was possible to strengthen his pledge to hold an in/out referendum before the end of 2017.
“People need to know that this is a serious pledge that they can bank,” he said.
“When all the dust has settled I think that people will be able to see that there is one party, the Conservative party, offering that in-out referendum and two other mainstream parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who oppose an in-out referendum.”
For Labour, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said they did not believe a referendum now was in the national interest and would vote against the eurosceptic amendment.
“David Cameron’s weakness has turned a European issue into a leadership issue,” he said.
“This latest step has more to do with David Cameron trying to get his party back in line rather than getting the economy back on track.”
A senior Lib Dem source said: “The Conservatives are free to bang on about Europe as much as they like within their own party.
“Rather than spend time debating an internal Tory trauma on an issue where the Government has a clear position, the Liberal Democrats will focus on jobs and growth.” – (PA)