David Cameron has hinted that Britain may get a referendum on whether to pull out of the European Union – but not until after the next general election.
The Prime Minister is under enormous pressure from Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, who are threatening to defy him on Monday, when the Commons will vote on whether to have an EU referendum.
The vote has set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street, which fears a return to the debilitating in-fighting over Europe which scarred the Tory governments headed by Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Mr Cameron may try to head off a possible defeat by imposing a three-line whip, a decision that would infuriate many of his backbenchers and could force some ministerial aides to resign so they could vote against the Government. Another option is for a loyalist MP to table an amendment to the referendum motion aimed at isolating hardline Eurosceptics. More than 50 could defy Mr Cameron by backing the first public vote on Europe since 1975.
The Prime Minister told the Commons his Government would not hold a "willy-nilly referendum" on Europe before the next election – a recognition that such a move would split the Coaliton with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. But he added: "In the longer term it may be that there will be further moves towards further treaties and all the rest of it. At that stage there may be opportunities to bring powers back to Britain and... opportunities for a referendum."