AN EU referendum has moved “one step closer” after a lopsided vote in the House of Commons boycotted by the majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs.
David Cameron was among Conservative MPs who greeted the 304 to zero verdict with a large cheer as it cleared its first hurdle.
However, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg dismissed the vote as a stunt. The bill will face tougher opposition at future stages as it makes its way through Parliament.
However, Mr Cameron said the British people were “one step closer” to getting a say on European Union membership.
Tory back-bencher James Wharton had brought the European Union (Referendum) Bill to make the commitment binding before the 2015 general election.
Europhile Kenneth Clarke was the only Tory Cabinet minister not to support an in-out referendum before 2017.
Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague were positioned prominently on the front-bench as the bill was introduced.
By contrast, the Labour and Lib Dem benches were sparsely occupied, with the bulk of the parties’ MPs obeying their leaders’ guidance to stay away.
During the debate, Mr Osborne appeared to congratulate Mr Wharton by mouthing: “Thank you.”
Mr Hague said afterwards: “Labour didn’t have the courage to vote for or against our bill and that suggests that they will try to block the bill in various ways. But it’s a good start for the bill, reinforcing our commitment to give the British people an in-out referendum by the end of 2017.
“It’s right that in a democracy you should give people a say. They haven’t had a say since 1975, which means anybody younger than me has never had a vote on the European Union.
“So, it’s right in principle and it’s in our national interest to work for a reformed EU and then give people the choice about that.”
Tory MPs were jubilant at having voted for a referendum which, for many, has become a totemic issue.
In May, 115 of them backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, criticising the failure to include a referendum bill in the government’s legislative programme.
Labour leader Mr Miliband – who was absent from Westminster yesterday – came under renewed pressure when one of his front-bench spokesmen broke ranks to call for a vote to be held even sooner than under Mr Cameron’s plans.
Dudley North MP Ian Austin, a former aide to Gordon Brown, wrote in his local paper: “The truth is that the UK needs to decide and I would prefer it to do so more quickly. I know this isn’t Labour Party policy, but my view is that we should have a referendum next year on the same day as the European elections.”
Mr Clarke, the minister without portfolio, was among a handful of Conservative MPs who did not vote in support of the bill.
There was a three-line whip for Tory MPs to vote in favour.