Eight former whipless Tory MPs will meet tonight to discuss plans for a backbench bill on a referendum to pull Britain out of the EU. They are prepared to ignore appeals for unity after the Tory local election losses and say the referendum on Britain's membership of the EU could prove decisive in the fight-back against Labour before the general election.
Some of its backers believe it could lead to a stampede by Tory backbenchers willing to sign up to the demands for a referendum on Britain's EU membership to stop the threat of a challenge to their seats by Sir James Goldsmith, the international financier and leader of the Referendum Party.
The proposed bill, to be tabled by Teresa Gorman, the Tory Euro-sceptic MP for Billericay, was given added impetus yesterday by fresh calls from Tory MPs for retaliation against the EU for its refusal to lift the ban on beef exports. Sir Michael Spicer denounced the ban as a "straightforward protectionist attack" on Britain and called on John Major to boycott the EU summit in Florence if it was not lifted by the end of June. He also supported Britain withholding its contributions to the EU.
David Nicholson, secretary of the Conservative backbench agriculture committee, called for trade sanctions against Britain's EU partners and a ban on beef imports from the Continent. "People are pressing for us to get tough with Europe because Europe quite clearly isn't going to lift the ban," he said on BBC radio.
The Euro-sceptics believe a referendum vote in the Commons will give them a second chance to make a show of strength to the Prime Minister and the Tory leadership. A Tory backbench bill to reassert the authority of Parliament over the European Court of Justice won the support of 66 Tory MPs last month, including former cabinet minister John Redwood, and Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor.
The referendum on Britain's EU membership would split the Euro-sceptics. Mr Redwood supports the Government commitment for a referendum on the European single currency, but has drawn the line at withdrawal from Europe. A similar line has been adopted by leading Euro-sceptics in the Cabinet, such as Michael Howard and Michael Portillo. The demands for Britain to review its membership of the EU were led by Mr Lamont. Others believed to be sympathetic outside the "whipless" eight include Jonathan Aitken, the former Treasury minister. Mrs Gorman said that a third of the Cabinet would be sympathetic, as would a majority of the 92 Group of Thatcherite Tory MPs, chaired by John Townend.
Mrs Gorman said she would be seeking a deal with Sir James for his party not to field candidates against any Tory MPs who support her bill.
The pressure for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU has intensified after the European ban on British beef exports. The rebels believe it represents the Tories' only chance of overhauling Labour after the disastrous local election losses.
Mrs Gorman said: "We are in despair. The Government is not making any headway over beef. If you asked people why they stayed at home last Thursday, the reason they would give is that they have no respect for the Government any more ... they see us being pushed around on beef, by the European Court."
But Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, accused the Euro-sceptics of misrepresenting the facts about the BSE crisis in order to reopen the question of Britain's EU membership. "The consequences could be that Britain's entire future in Europe could be threatened on the basis of a lie," he said on BBC radio.
"This has been brought about by catastrophically weak leadership at the top. The Government has totally mishandled this whole BSE thing from start to finish."Reuse content