David Cameron is facing his biggest Conservative rebellion since becoming Prime Minister after MPs called a Commons vote next week on whether Britain should have a referendum on leaving the European Union.
Senior Tories warned last night that the party's MPs will be under enormous pressure to defy Mr Cameron on 27 October by voting in favour of a referendum. They said the crucial factor in many Tory MPs' minds would be the proposed shake-up of parliamentary boundaries to allow the Government to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. This will provoke a scramble for seats, with many MPs doing battle with colleagues for the right to be their party's candidate at the next election.
One senior figure told The Independent: "The mood of Tory grassroots members is overwhelmingly Eurosceptic. They want a referendum on the EU. A candidate who opposed that in Parliament would be cutting his or her own throat. The boundary review will be a big factor in MPs' minds."
Mr Cameron, who urged his party to stop "banging on" about Europe when he became its leader in 2005, believes a referendum would be a distraction. The Government has promised one before any further powers are handed from Britain to Brussels but there is no prospect of that happening.
Feelings are running high among Tory MPs. The crisis in the eurozone, which is likely to lead to fiscal integration among the 17 countries in the euro, has fuelled their demands for an "in or out" referendum, the first since 1975.
The Backbench Business Committee, which decides the subject of Commons debates on 27 days a year, agreed yesterday to hold one on Europe. Although a vote in favour of a referendum would not technically be binding, it would put huge pressure on Mr Cameron to promise one at a later date. To head off the referendum demands, the Prime Minister may offer concessions to the Tory rebels – such as trying to grab back powers over employment laws from Brussels. But that would cause huge tensions with his Liberal Democrat Coalition partners.
David Nuttall, the Tory MP who proposed the debate, said it had been more than 36 years since the UK had held a referendum on this matter. His motion calls on the Government to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament "to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the UK should remain a member of the EU, leave the EU, or renegotiate its terms."
Nikki Sinclaire, an independent former Ukip MEP who presented a 100,000-signature petition to Downing Street calling for a referendum, said: "This is a serious headache for David Cameron. He has got to deal with this issue."
Mr Cameron said this month that pulling out of the EU was "the wrong answer". He said: "What most people want in this country is not... to leave the EU, but to reform [it] and make sure the balance of powers between Britain and Europe is better."