A referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union came a step closer when MPs overwhelmingly backed a public vote in 2017.
Conservative MPs put aside their differences over whether the UK should leave the EU by uniting in support of a backbench Bill to enshrine in law David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum. It was given a second reading by 304 votes to nil. Most Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs abstained after their party leaders dismissed it as a stunt, but six Labour Eurosceptics rebelled by voting in favour.
The Private Member’s Bill is unlikely to become law due to lack of parliamentary time. But the huge majority will keep up the pressure for a referendum – and for Labour to do U-turn by coming out in favour of one so that it is not isolated at the 2015 election.
Mr Cameron, who joined the packed Tory benches for the debate, said the Commons decision had brought “us one step closer to giving the British people a say on Europe.”
The EU (Referendum)Bill was introduced by James Wharton, the youngest Tory MP at 29, who said generations of people had been denied a say on Europe since the country decided to stay in at the 1975 referendum. “ I am not here today to put an argument about whether we should be in or out…but that we should let the British people have a say,” he said.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, told the Commons it was "the right Bill, at the right time".
He said: "The efforts of those who want to build European integration without bringing the people with them have been utterly self-defeating.”
Challenged by Labour MPs, Mr Hague said he would vote in a referendum “to stay in a successfully reformed EU”, as would Mr Cameron. Many Tory MPs have already signalled they would vote to pull out.
For Labour, Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "We do not believe that an in/out referendum in 2017, as anticipated by this Bill, is in the national interest.” He said Mr Cameron’s referendum pledge had been “driven by weakness not by strength. This is about external electoral threats [from Ukip] and internal leadership threats. This is not about trusting the people, it is about these people [Tory MPs] not trusting the Prime Minister.”
However, Mr Alexander refused to rule out a change of heart on a referendum by Labour before the 2015 election and there are growing signs it will support one.
Although most Labour and Lib Dem MPs stayed away, several Labour Eurosceptics delighted the Tories by speaking in support of a referendum. Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. He told MPs: “I believe this should be done sooner rather than later. I believe that we should do it now if we can. If not now, then certainly at the time of the next general election.”
The six Labour MPs who voted for the Bill were: Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green), Kate Hoey (Vauxhall), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North), Dennis Skinner (Bolsover), Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) and Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston).
Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems’ deputy leader, said his constituents’ priorities were “jobs, growth and investment”, which would be put at risk by the uncertainty over EU membership caused by a 2017 referendum.