DAVID Cameron is facing a major rebellion over membership of the European Union after Conservative back-benchers forced a vote in parliament next week on bringing forward a referendum.
In a fresh blow to his authority as Prime Minister, a group of Tory eurosceptics tabled an amendment in the House of Commons yesterday for a bill to be drawn up opposing his stance on a public vote.
Mr Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in 2017 if the Conservatives win the 2015 general election. However the rebel group is calling for legislation for the vote to be drafted in the current parliament.
The move, which is expected to be debated on Tuesday and is likely to win the support of dozens of Tory back-benchers, follows a failure to include legislation for a referendum in this week’s Queen’s Speech.
It also follows a humiliating defeat for the Conservatives at the polls in the English county council elections last week, with the anti-EU membership UK Independence Party (Ukip) picking up more than a quarter of the vote.
And this week a series of Conservative Party grandees led by former chancellor Lord Lawson and former defence secretary Michael Portillo have called for the UK to pull out of the EU. Another former chancellor Lord Lamont said yesterday that membership of the EU is now against British interests.
The amendment, tabled in the name of Wellingborough MP Peter Bone and backed by former leadership candidates David Davis and John Redwood, is not backed by Labour or the Liberal Democrats so is unlikely to pass.
However, the vote is expected to be a humiliation for the Prime Minister and undermine his authority.
Other well-known Tory eurosceptics backing the amendment are Brian Binley, John Baron, Bill Cash and Nadine Dories.
Mr Cameron’s frustration was evident yesterday when he delivered a keynote speech attacking the eurosceptic “pessimists” who want the UK out of the EU because they believe it cannot be reformed. He said: “I think it is possible to change and reform this organisation and change and reform Britain’s relationship with it.”
Mr Bone said he hoped the vote next week would show the Tory leadership that there was “significant parliamentary demand” to enshrine the referendum pledge in law before the general election.
He said that including legislation in this session of parliament would help ensure the vote went ahead even if Mr Cameron was not returned to No 10.
“What I am doing is helping the Prime Minister. The one reason he could not bring it forward is because of the Liberal Democrats. I would expect the Lib Dems to vote against this and the Tories to vote for it, that will strengthen the hand of the Prime Minister,” Mr Bone said.
“The idea this can wait until the general election is not good enough. If Labour won the election they would not bring it in.”
Tory MP Nadine Dorries – who was only allowed back into the party on Wednesday after being banished for taking part in the television show I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here – said she was signing the rebel amendment on her first day back after being suspended for six months. Ms Dorries declined to say how many other Conservatives would back the vote, but said it would be “more than it would have been a week ago” before the council elections.
She said: “I think it is absolutely right that we should have a referendum as soon as possible.
“I know that the position is that we should be renegotiating. Actually, people were given a clear choice when they were given a choice to go into the EU – it was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to go in.
“I think people deserve that choice to come out, and they deserve it soon.”
The Mid-Bedfordshire MP welcomed Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech, but said she and many of her colleagues were concerned about the level of voter unhappiness with Britain’s relationship with the EU.
“We send £53 million a day to Europe and we could do an awful lot with that money in terms of kick-starting growth and spending in the UK. We need that money here.
“Europe is failing. It is dying on its feet. It is actually a very small part of our global economy. Instead of looking to a sick and ailing Europe we should be looking to a burgeoning, expanding economic market in countries like Brazil and India and Japan and China and other countries.”
Asked whether the Tories were “running scared” of Ukip, Ms Dorries said: “If David Cameron wanted to shoot Ukip’s fox, the way to do it would be to come out right now and say, ‘I’m going to promise the British people a referendum on Europe between now and the next general election’. If he did that, he would take away the reason for Ukip to exist.
“So if he was running scared from Ukip, if he thought Ukip was an issue, that’s what he’d do. That is actually what people want.
“Many of us – myself included – really think that the time has come for us to stop bailing out southern European countries, to stop sending this huge amount of money to Europe every day, to look after our own and our own country and to keep that £53m and spend it here, and to create jobs by trading with and looking towards the rest of the world.”
The man tipped by many to replace Mr Cameron, London Mayor Boris Johnson, said: “My view has always been narrowly in favour of staying in, particularly for protecting British interests in the single market to avoid us being discriminated against.
“I now think that there is a real opportunity to get a better deal from Europe and that is what we need to do. And that is why the idea of a renegotiation with Europe is a very good one.”
Mr Portillo has described Mr Cameron’s offer of a referendum as “an insincere ploy” and argued that the EU no longer served the UK’s interests.
And Lord Lamont said yesterday: “I think that the economic advantages of the EU are vastly over-stated. I think we could manage on our own, as Switzerland – much more integrated with the EU than we are – does.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said Mr Cameron was “relaxed” about the amendment.
The spokesman said Mr Cameron had “always said he is very happy to look at all ways of strengthening his commitment to an in/out referendum in the next parliament”.
Asked whether the Prime Minister would be “relaxed” about ministers supporting the amendment he said: “You are fast-forwarding to a vote next week.
“The Prime Minister is relaxed about that, I think the implication of that is clear.”
Pressed on the issue of ministers voting he said: “The implication of his stance is pretty clear.”
Fresh signs of coalition split
Prime Minister David Cameron faced a deepening rift with his coalition partners after his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg, pictured, made it clear his party would block controversial child care reforms.
After one of the shortest Queen Speeches in recent years because the two coalition partners could agree on so little legislation, Mr Clegg made it clear that he would not allow a key cost-cutting measure of introducing childcare ratios in England to go forward.
The veto is the latest evidence of divides between the two coalition partners which have also surfaced over welfare reform, the English NHS and the bringing elections to the House of Lords. Lib Dems are already unhappy that gay marriage was omitted from the Queen’s Speech to appease Tory rightwingers and a promise to commit to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid in law has also been dropped.
‘Snooper’s charter’ could still reach statute book
CONTROVERSIAL plans to create a “snoopers charter” have been revived by the UK government in a document attached to the Queen’s Speech.
The proposed bill which would allow the authorities to look into private e-mails and internet and mobile use had appeared to have been scuppered when Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg declared his party would block it.
But despite not being listed in the Queen’s Speech, a briefing note has emerged which makes it clear the communications data legislation could still be introduced into parliament.
The note says: “We are continuing to look at this issue closely and the government’s approach will be proportionate, with robust safeguards in place.”
The Queen’s Speech itself gave the go-ahead to legislation, if needed, to deal with limited technical problem of there being many more devices including phones and tablets in use than the number of internet protocol addresses that allow the police to identify who sent an e-mail or made a Skype call at a given time.
Last night, Whitehall sources suggested that the government is in talks with internet and phone companies over whom to deal with concerning this.
Analysis by Eddie Barnes: Cameron stuck in the middle of a mess as rebels continue to misbehave on Europe
WHEN the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed their coalition pact, the two wildly disparate parties set out a Programme for Government to provide a fixed menu of policies to which both could agree. These days, the coalition is looking more of an à la carte arrangement.
That is the conclusion to be drawn after a group of Tory back-benchers yesterday tabled an amendment to a parliamentary motion welcoming the Queen’s Speech expressing regret that it did not include a commitment to an EU referendum.
The amendment was met with a very peculiar reaction at Downing Street. Standard practice would be for the government’s substantial pay roll vote to vote against the amendment. After all, the Queen’s Speech is their plan.
But after the amendment was laid yesterday, No 10 signalled that it is “relaxed” about how ministers respond. So it seems that ministers have been given the green light to back a motion criticising the failures contained within their own legislative programme.
None of this is likely to have much practical impact. Even if the amendment were passed, the government would be under no obligation to introduce a bill preparing the way for an EU referendum, either in this parliament or the next.
But even though the coalition pact set out areas where the two sides could agree to disagree, this latest episode takes the rifts within it to new levels. The obvious question is if ministers can criticise government legislation on this point, can they do so on everything else too? It also shows that Mr Cameron cannot do much these days to restrain those back-benchers around him who remain entirely dissatisfied with his speech early this year promising a referendum in 2017.
They want him to be firmer still, by committing to a bill. Their amendment, it is understood, has been designed to be vague enough to get maximum backing – including from Labour MPs.
It is also designed very much to keep the story going, with contributions from Lord Lawson and Michael Portillo having, in recent days, given wings to the eurosceptic cause.
Mr Cameron yesterday sought to position himself as the moderate in the middle, neither too eurosceptic nor europhiliac. But pulled one way and that by the demands of his Lib Dem partners, and his rumbustious back-benchers, it looks increasingly from the outside that he is the middle of a mess.