Gordon Brown is being urged to call a snap election this autumn in an attempt to defuse a row over Europe which threatens to divide Labour.
Some Brown advisers are pressing the Prime Minister to seek his own mandate from the voters in October to head off demands by MPs in all parties for a referendum on a new governing treaty for the European Union. One Labour source yesterday said: "Europe is now a factor in the election decision."
Supporters of an immediate poll argue that it would prevent the run-up to an election next May being overshadowed by a messy and divisive parliamentary battle to secure the passage of a Bill to implement the treaty. Those calling for a referendum claim the backing of up to 120 Labour MPs. Last night the former Europe minister, Keith Vaz, publicly added his name to the list. Although not all of them would vote against the Government, enough may rebel to ensure some close votes, reviving memories of the bitter split among Tory MPs over Europe which destabilised John Major's government before the 1997 election.
Advisers who favour an October poll say that, while the Conservatives might make some capital by demanding a referendum during the campaign, Europe would not be the decisive issue for most voters. They say that, if Labour won a fourth term, Mr Brown would be in a stronger position to defeat the referendum calls because he would have been elected on a manifesto saying one was not necessary.
The likelihood of that prospect received a boost yesterday when a Yougov survey for The Daily Telegraph showed Labour commanding an eight-point lead over the Tories – by 41 per cent to 33 per cent – with the Lib Dems down two points to 14 per cent. The figures indicate a possible landslide election victory for Mr Brown.
In a blow for David Cameron, the poll showed that fewer than half of those questioned believed he would make a better prime minister than Mr Brown. 40 per cent of the voters surveyed meanwhile said they were satisfied with the Prime Minister's performance, an increase of six points since the equivalent poll last month, indicating the public are currently warming to Mr Brown the longer he stays in power.
Mr Brown has turned down calls for a public vote on the proposed treaty, saying it protects Britain's no-go areas on EU integration. But critics claim it is virtually the same as the EU constitution rejected two years ago in France and the Netherlands, on which Labour had promised a referendum.
The Conservative leader, David Cameron, has led demands for the public to vote on the treaty and there are signs that some Liberal Democrats favour the move, putting further pressure on Mr Brown's Commons majority.
Yesterday the Foreign Office rejected calls by rebel Labour MPs for 12 changes to the draft treaty. They included dropping a proposed new voting system for the Council of Ministers, the EU's main decision-making body, and keeping policing and criminal justice outside the remit of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The Foreign Office said that the new voting system would prove to be "simpler and more democratic". A spokesman said: "The UK's share of the votes in the Council of Ministers will rise from 8.4 to 12.3 per cent – so we will be better off. While our ability to block a measure would marginally decrease, our ability to pass measures we like would marginally increase. This will help the EU to deliver where we want it to."
The spokesman said that the ECJ already had jurisdiction over asylum, migration and civil justice because Britain had chosen to opt in to those areas. "Under the treaty, this principle stays the same – ECJ jurisdiction applies to those measures where we opt in," he said.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said the constitution blocked in 2005 had been "abandoned". He told e.Politix.com: "I think you'll see a very strong case from the Government, but also from business people, from environmental groups that this treaty does protect the things that are important for us, it actually makes Europe better-run and increases the voting weight of Britain in the Council of Ministers which is obviously a good thing for Britain."
But David Blunkett, the former cabinet minister, said: "The Government has a long way to go in providing a proper answer to the demands for a referendum on the new EU treaty."Reuse content