David Cameron has ruled out any further concessions to his hardline Eurosceptic MPs as they prepared to defy him by staging a Commons revolt today.
The Prime Minister tried to end the damaging impression that he is being pushed around by rebel Conservative backbenchers, as his party rushed out a Draft European Union (Referendum) Bill.
The early version of the proposed legislation would promise that, before 31 December 2017, the public would be asked: “Do you think that the UK should remain a member of the European Union?” But the Bill, likely to be introduced by a Tory MP as a Private Member’s Bill, stands little chance of becoming law because of Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition and lack of Parliamentary time.
Mr Cameron is aiming to remind the public of his pledge to hold a referendum by 2017 and limit the scale of the Tory revolt today. Speaker John Bercow has selected for a vote a backbench Tory amendment expressing "regret" that there was no Government Bill in the Queen's Speech to enshrine the referendum in law.
Publication of the draft Bill has persuaded some Eurosceptics not to vote against the Speech. But hardliners said the Prime Minister had not gone far enough and rejected pressure to back down.
Philip Hollobone, Tory MP for Kettering, predicted that about 100 Tories would support the amendment and said Mr Cameron should overrule Nick Clegg by bringing in the Bill as a government measure – even if that ended the Coalition. He admitted: “It is undignified and there is some chaos in Number 10 this week.”
John Baron, who tabled the amendment, said the Bill was “a small step in the right direction”, but added: “Number 10 knows that a Private Member’s Bill could fail.”
Tory officials played down the rebellion, saying backbenchers and ministerial aides had a free vote. They also insisted a backbench Bill would have a chance of becoming law. Senior Tory sources said Mr Cameron would not make fresh concessions to his critics, however. “This is our red line, we are not going to give them any more ground,” one said, citing the public support for Mr Cameron’s stance on the EU from US President Barack Obama on Monday. “We’ve now got Obama and this Bill. It’s like building a big dam.”
Speaking during a three-day tour of Americae, Mr Cameron denied he had been “panicked” into bringing forward the draft Bill. “When all the dust has settled I think that people will be able to see that there is one party, the Conservative Party, offering that in/out referendum and two other mainstream parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who oppose an in/out referendum,” he said.
The Tories tried to turn the spotlight away from their tensions over Europe. Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, said: “Labour and the Liberal Democrats have shown complete disdain for the views of the British people in denying them a say in a referendum. When will they have the courage to follow this government’s lead?”
Some Labour figures, including the shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, believe the party should consider matching the Tories’ referendum pledge. Keith Vaz, Dennis Skinner and John Cryer, called for a change of policy at the weekly meeting of Labour MPs on Monday. But the Shadow Cabinet agreed yesterday to oppose the draft Bill.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, right, said: “Our judgment is that the national interest today is served by a laser-like focus on stability, growth and jobs. This latest step has more to do with David Cameron trying to get his party back in line rather than getting the economy back on track.”
Lib Dems accused the Tories of blaming Mr Clegg’s party to distract attention from their own divisions. A senior Lib Dem source said: “The ink is barely dry on the legislation passed by this Coalition Government that gives the British people a guarantee in law that there will be a referendum next time power is transferred from Westminster to Brussels.
“Now the Tories have changed their mind and want to reopen the issue all over again. They want to talk about their obsession with Europe but then blame the Lib Dems. While the Tories bang on and on about Europe, the Lib Dems will concentrate on jobs and growth.”
Nigel Farage, leader of Ukip, said the draft Bill “does not have the weight of law because no parliament can bind its successor.”