Cameron relishes chance to show rebels who's boss

More than 100 Tory backbenchers are set to defy whip in Commons showdown, but the PM is keen to shut down the controversy that has dogged his predecessors

Click to follow
Indy Politics

David Cameron is preparing to face down more than half of his own backbenchers in a long-anticipated stand-off over Britain's relations with Brussels. As Eurosceptic backbenchers try to turn the crisis in the eurozone to their advantage, at least 100 Tory MPs are expected to back a motion demanding a referendum on membership of the European Union or defy a three-line whip by abstaining in a tense vote in the Commons tomorrow.

The Prime Minister hopes the vote will finally lance the boil on the decades-long issue of Europe in the Conservative Party, and is said to be relishing the showdown in the division lobbies.

Using hardline language, Downing Street made clear yesterday that he would rather have a battle with Conservative backbenchers now than threaten the stability of the coalition by offering compromises to his rebellious MPs.

It is expected that Mr Cameron, boosted by the foreign policy success in Libya, will use the chance to bolster his authority over the right wing of his party.

Against the backdrop of emergency talks in Brussels to rescue the euro, a No 10 source said Mr Cameron was ready to have the "fight" with his own MPs. The source said: "We have always known that this argument was looming – you may as well have it properly and win the vote."

In the hours before the Commons confrontation, Mr Cameron will meet with a string of ministerial aides who have indicated they are ready to resign in order to vote against the three-line whip. While he will set out reasons for the Government's position, sources said there would be no concessions merely to save their jobs.

"If they want to vote against the Government, that is their choice and they will have to resign," said the source.

There are 68 Tory MPs who say they will back David Nuttall's motion calling for a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU, leave or renegotiate its membership. One amendment, tabled by Richard Harrington, which demands the return of powers to the UK and an end to British participation in any euro bailout, is backed by a dozen Tories. A second amendment, tabled by George Eustice, a former press secretary to Mr Cameron, says a referendum should be held only after a review of what powers could be repatriated from Brussels. It has the backing of at least 22 MPs. Whips do not expect John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, to call either amendment, and most of the supporting MPs are expected to weigh in behind the original motion.

The row risks destabilising the coalition. Martin Horwood, a senior Lib Dem MP, accused the Conservative right and the UK Independence Party of being "fantastically irresponsible" and "hell-bent on stoking a row that will threaten our stability". The Lib Dems remain committed to an in/out referendum "the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU".

Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, said that Monday's vote could prove to be a "very, very big tipping point for his party". "The three party leaders are doing their best to make sure the people cannot have their say. For many people, Ukip is now the only option."

Mr Cameron is the latest in a long line of Tory leaders to face trouble from his backbenchers over Europe, but he is not prepared to be held hostage by backbenchers in the way that John Major was over the Maastricht Treaty.

No 10 strategists believe that, with three and a half years to go before the election, it is better to settle the issue now rather than have it dominate in the run-up to polling day in 2015.

However, there were signs yesterday that backbench Tory MPs' unhappiness over Europe was spreading into wider discontent about being cut adrift by No 10 and the coalition government.

In the reshuffle caused by Liam Fox's departure from the Cabinet, senior backbench figures were furious that there was no equally arch-Eurosceptic to replace him. Then, on Thursday, the tearooms were awash with stories that 29-year-old Chloe Smith, an acolyte of the Chancellor, George Osborne, was given the post of Economic Secretary to the Treasury because Mr Cameron mistakenly believed she had experience as an accountant.

"The signal it sent out was that if you were elected before Chloe Smith, it's game over," said one Tory MP. "You'll never get a job."

Experienced Tory MPs who survived the post-1997 wilderness years, are unimpressed at the handling of the row by what one described as the "spotty teenage scribblers in Downing Street". One senior Tory MP said: "People are very, very angry about the way this has all been handled. It has alienated a big chunk of the party."

A briefing sent to MPs on Thursday was titled "Britain in Europe", which was the name of the pro-European group launched by Tony Blair, Ken Clarke and Charles Kennedy in 1999. "It's like they know nothing about the party they have been put in charge of," says another Tory grandee.

Yet many in Downing Street matured politically in the 1990s when the Major government was paralysed by splits over Europe. When friends of Mr Fox compared a weak Mr Cameron with Mr Major at the height of the lobbying scandal, it spooked some of the PM's closest aides. "We had the economy tanking, sleazy cabinet ministers and now a row over Europe. We're just waiting for mad cow's disease and we'll have the full set," joked a No 10 insider.

A meeting of the 1922 backbench committee a fortnight ago is said to have been a turning point for backbenchers, when William Hague made clear to MPs that there would be no renegotiation of powers any time soon. A colleague says Mr Hague remains "very scarred" by the 2001 general election when, as leader, he ran a hardline Eurosceptic campaign, and has become more "pragmatic" about Europe since becoming Foreign Secretary.

To add to this storm of discontent, dozens of Tories are looking nervously at the plan to redraw constituency boundaries and know anyone seeking reselection for a new seat will be at a distinct advantage with local Tory associations if they can brandish Eurosceptic credentials.

After the recent petition for a referendum attracted 100,000 signatures, Mr Cameron is being reminded that, in April 2009, he said: "We are the only major party to have consistently said that it is up to the British people to decide on our future in Europe."

Despite the row, No 10 insisted that the PM "is a Eurosceptic" and that as soon as there was an EU treaty involving greater fiscal union or other major changes, then renegotiations would take place.

Until now, the biggest rebellion Mr Cameron has faced was when 41 Tory MPs defied the whip over the Protection of Freedoms Bill earlier this month, a fraction of the number preparing to defy the Government in the lobbies tomorrow.

What the rebels say: 'EU regulation is one of the causes of our stagnating economy'

The British people have never been consulted on our membership of the EU. The petition of Parliament shows that there is an enormous demand for a referendum. I firmly support the principle of the British people deciding on our relationship with the EU.

Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough

I will be voting for David Nuttall's motion in favour of a referendum. My constituents have had enough of the federalist agenda. Most don't want to leave altogether but do want a significant rebalancing of power.

Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes

My amendment is consistent with the coalition agreement, so we should be allowed a free vote. Getting growth back in our economy requires us to tackle the big problems in the EU, because EU regulation is one of the causes of our stagnating economy.

George Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth

I'm voting in favour of this motion. It's high time that the British people had a say on our relationship with the EU and it's only right and fair that I convey the strong feeling a vast majority of my constituents have on this issue.

Caroline Dinenage, MP for Gosport

I have repeatedly pledged to vote for a referendum. The motion reflects the policies of both members of the coalition. The parties should allow Parliament to express itself in a free vote or the whole process is meaningless.

Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park & North Kingston

What does "out of the EU" look like? Would it need all member states to agree? When their house is on fire they are unlikely to start thinking about our internal problems. I am a strong Eurosceptic and people should have their say.

Andrea Leadsom, MP for South Northamptonshire