Conservative Eurosceptics are plotting to join forces with Labour and the Scottish National Party to delay the EU referendum.
They are worried David Cameron will try to push through a referendum in June, which they believe will give them too little time to convince the public that the UK would be better off leaving the EU. Eurosceptics would prefer a September poll, allowing them to get better organised – there are currently damaging divisions over tactics and personnel in the main Out organisations.
It is expected that the date of the referendum will be set by the Government and approved by a committee of MPs selected by party whips. Mr Cameron’s team could make sure this is dominated by MPs supportive of remaining in the EU following the Prime Minister’s renegotiation settlement.
However, the Eurosceptics want to force this to a debate of all MPs by showing another panel, the statutory instruments committee, that there is strong support for a debate in the Commons. If they can then get enough Labour support, the Conservative rebels could defeat the Government, meaning Mr Cameron would have to return with a later referendum date.
It is understood some that Eurosceptics have started sounding out senior Labour fixers to see if they could rely on opposition votes. This would be a difficult decision for Jeremy Corbyn, because most of his party are pro-EU and would want the referendum to come at the point at which they have the best chance of victory. But it would give the Labour leader an opportunity to embarrass the Government.
Mr Corbyn, who has said he will vote to remain in the EU despite a record of Euroscepticism, would expect to have cover from SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs.
They are pro-EU, but are angry that the poll could overshadow the previous month’s Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections. In addition, the Electoral Commission has argued that it should be held six months after legislation is completed. The main bill allowing the referendum to take place passed before Christmas, but many MPs believe the clock should start from when the referendum date is set.
A leading Conservative Eurosceptic added: “I’m in favour of anything that leads to a delay – this looks like it is going to be a very rushed campaign. The Electoral Commission said this should take place from six months after the statutory instrument is laid, so you can’t hold a referendum in June – it’s already January.”
Labour’s leading Eurosceptic, Kate Hoey, said the Government should insist that the polling date is voted on by all MPs given the referendum’s constitutional significance. She said: “This has to be on the floor of the House. Any government that tries to slip it through a committee will find the move strongly opposed not only by EU-sceptic MPs but all MPs who care about parliamentary sovereignty.”
Another Labour MP said: “There is always a method to make sure a vote ends up on the floor of the House.”
If these Eurosceptics get their wish and then win a vote, Mr Cameron will have to return with an alternative date, the most likely of which will be in September – after the summer but before the main party conferences.
With cross-party support, the Conservative MP John Baron has secured a Commons debate on the importance of parliamentary sovereignty in the EU negotiations for this Thursday. Ukip’s Douglas Carswell, the Democratic Unionist Jim Shannon, and Jon Cryer, who chairs the Parliamentary Labour Party, all backed the staging of the debate.Reuse content