Tories retreat from pledge on Europe

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The Independent Online
The Conservatives have performed a complete U-turn on their call for a referendum to be held on the Treaty of Amsterdam. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, watched the move in the Commons last night

William Hague and Michael Howard, Tory spokesman, are refusing to pick up a backbench Tory amendment to the legislation on the Amsterdam treaty, calling for the electorate to be given a referendum.

The Independent has been told that the party leadership is now embarrassed by Mr Hague's first major speech as party leader, last June, when he told Scots Tories in Perth that the public deserved a voice on the treaty that Tony Blair had agreed earlier that month, soon after the election.

Mr Hague said Labour was a rootless party, without principles, and he pledged that he would not be ditching his beliefs at the behest of focus groups.

In the same speech, Mr Hague said Amsterdam was a bad treaty, "Bad for Europe and bad for Britain", and as Labour was so keen on referendums, he invited them to stage another: "Let's have a referendum on the Amsterdam treaty."

But Tory Euro-sceptics have noted that since the Commons opened its examination of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, enacting Amsterdam, Tory spokesmen have been muted. More obviously, however, a backbench amendment offering the people referendum on the treaty didnot attract support of the frontbench.

Signed by four of the Tory backbenchers who had the party whip withdrawn from them in the last Parliament - Richard Shepherd, Sir Teddy Taylor, Teresa Gorman and Christopher Gill, along with two "new boys" John Bercow and Julian Lewis - it is not known when the amendment will come up for debate and vote.

Last night, opening a Commons debate on Europe, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, mocked the Tory stance, saying that even Mr Howard now seemed uncertain of popular support for his line on Europe.

"He has not once asked me to put the Amsterdam Treaty to a vote of the people in a referendum," Mr Cook said to Labour laughter.

However, he pointed out that Mr Howard had now been rescued by the courage and vigour of his own backbench colleagues, with their amendment to the legislation.

Later, Mr Cook directly challenged Mr Howard, asking whether he would be recom mending a vote for the backbench amendment - but Mr Howard completely ducked the question and dissociated the front bench from its previous policy saying : "It is the Government that is so besotted with referendums. If the Gov ernment is so keen on referendums....then we certainly say that the logic of the government position is that it should have one on Amsterdam."