David Cameron suffered a wounding blow to his authority last night, after he was hit by the biggest rebellion on Europe ever experienced by a Conservative Prime Minister.
More than 80 of his MPs defied a three-line whip to vote against the Government over its refusal to allow a referendum on EU withdrawal.
Mr Cameron won a comfortable majority of 372, but it could certainly be described as a pyrrhic victory, as around half of the Tory "non-payroll vote" refused to support the coalition's official policy position.
Eurosceptics will be emboldened by the result and are preparing to step up their campaign for a referendum on whether to pull out of the EU or renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership.
The Prime Minister, who faced bitter criticism over his handling of the Commons vote and accusations of bullying his MPs, was warned last night that he faces years of backbench dissent on the issue. Mr Cameron, the Chancellor George Osborne, and William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, mounted a concerted effort during the day to win over potential rebels, warning them in meetings and phone calls that a vote for a referendum would be a huge distraction from tackling Europe's economic crisis.
However, MP after MP took to the floor in a highly-charged debate to decry the Government's refusal to allow a free vote on a non-binding motion to allow a referendum.
Mr Cameron defeated the rebel motion by 483 to 111 votes – a result that was never in doubt, after his position was backed by the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
But 81 of his MPs refused to toe the official line, dwarfing the largest rebellion of 41 experienced by John Major in 1993 as he struggled to win support for the Maastricht treaty. About a dozen members of Paliament abstained in the vote. Last night a Downing Street spokesman said: "We understand many people who voted for [the motion] felt very strongly and we respect that. However, the Government has to do what is in the national interest. The easy thing to do would have been for us to have avoided expressing a view. It was important to take a strong lead – as Britain's best interests are served by being in the EU."
Almost every Tory speaker in the five-hour debate denounced Mr Cameron – and two ministerial aides lost their jobs in the process. Adam Holloway effectively resigned as the parliamentary aide to the Europe Minister, David Lidington. To cheers, Mr Holloway told MPs: "I'm really staggered loyal people like me have been put in this position. If Britain's future as an independent country is not a proper matter for a referendum, then I have absolutely no idea what is."
Stewart Jackson, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, denounced the party's "catastrophic mismanagement" of the issue. He declared: "For me, constituency and country must come before the baubles of ministerial office." They were backed by passionate Eurosceptic, Lord Tebbit, who suggested that Mr Cameron could even lose his leadership to a dissenter.
"The question one has to ask is: Is it likely that a new leader would come from those who are intimidated by the three-line whip into reneging on what they truly believe, or whether it will be those who voted against the government," he said.
Earlier, Mr Cameron told MPs: "This was not our policy at the election and it is not our policy now. It's not right because our national interest is to be in the EU." Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, agreed that Britain "could not afford" to leave the EU at the moment, but mocked the Tories for having another "nervous breakdown" on Europe. The Conservative MP, David Nuttall, who proposed the rebel motion, said the public were "saddened and disillusioned" at being "fobbed off" by the "political elite who always seem to stop them having their say". Mark Pritchard, secretary of the influential Tory backbench 1922 committee said MPs had "come under some pressure" to back the Government line.
But he added: "The domestic policy of this country can no longer be disaggregated from the economics of the European Union. "Let's do the right thing by allowing the British people their birthright." In one of the shortest speeches ever in the Commons, Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne, stood up to say: "If not now, when?" But Mr Hague said the proposed referendum was "the wrong proposition at the wrong time". He said the eurozone was "clearly in crisis" and piling further economic uncertainty upon that was "not a responsible action to take". He said the three-way choice offered by the referendum was "seriously flawed".
EU referendum vote
Rebels: What they said
David Nuttall, MP for Bury North
"Voters know the tentacles of the EU intrude into more and more areas of our national life. They are sad and disillusioned about being fobbed off by the political elite."
Bernard Jenkin, Conservative Party vice-chairman
"So many parties having promised a referendum time and time again, it is clearly something that the British people want to have a say about – our future relationship with the EU. It is ironic that the House of Commons is likely to vote heavily against what the British people want."
Mark Pritchard, MP for The Wrekin
"My parliamentary colleagues have come under some pressure, and can I say now, they are not rebels; they are patriots."
Philip Davies, MP for Shipley
"Our future prosperity lies in trade with China, India, South America and emerging economies in Africa, not being part of a backward-facing, inward-looking protection racket which is what the EU is."
Past Tory revolts
18 Edward Heath's biggest rebellion saw 18 MPs defy him over Common market membership in 1972.
19 of her MPs voted against Margaret Thatcher over the EC (Finance) Bill.
41 Tories rebelled against John Major in 1993, voting against the Maastricht Bill.
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