MPs look set to be asked to vote for an in/ out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union after a eurosceptic Tory MP topped the ballot for private members bills in the Commons.
• Tory leadership backed EU referndum bill expected to go through parliament
Stockton South MP James Wharton was one of 116 Tory rebels who last night voted on amendment to the Queen’s speech “regretting” that there was no draft referendum legislation.
Pressure from eurosceptics saw Prime Minister David Cameron forced to publish wording for a referendum bill on behalf of his party but not the government this week.
And it is now expected that Mr Wharton will try to take this bill or another version through parliament with the backing of the Tory leadership but opposition from the Lib Dem coalition partners and Labour.
Mr Wharton is reportedly considering his options but all four of the top 10 drawn for a ballot are eurosceptics who voted for the “regret” amendment last night.
Labour MP Paul Blomfield came second in the ballot, Conservative Jonathan Lord was third and Conservative Sheryll Murray - who successfully got a private member’s bill through Parliament last year - came fourth.
Last night 116 Tory MPs, more than half the backbenchers, backed the motion to “regret” the lack of an EU vote bill in the Queen’s Speech.
The move was defeated by 277 votes to 131 as Lib Dems and Labour opposed it.
The proposed amendment “expressed regret” that a bill paving the way for a referendum in 2017, as pledged by David Cameron, was not being brought forward this year.
Conservative MP Peter Bone said the result showed the Tory party wanted a referendum. The amendment was defeated by 277 votes to 130, a majority of 147.
Mr Bone said: “It shows the Conservative Party wants an EU referendum. No Conservative voted against the amendment – many Labour MPs voted for it.”
He added: “This is not a rebellion, this is a free vote. In fact, to a certain extent, the Prime Minister was encouraging us to vote for the amendment because, after all, it’s his own policy.”
David Cameron dismissed the result but Labour claimed he had “completely lost control” of his party on the issue.
Speaking at the United Nations in New York, Mr Cameron said: “I don’t think people can read in anything to the scale of that free vote.
“The Conservative Party has a very clear position and policy about what needs to happen in Europe.”
Mr Cameron promised an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 earlier this year but Eurosceptics want the commitment written into law and the leadership yesterday published a draft bill to enable that.
It would have to be taken up by a Tory backbencher to get the plan considered in parliament, but opposition from Labour and the Liberal Democrats would prevent it making progress.
Mr Cameron denied he had been panicked into publishing the draft bill to quell Tory unrest and was “profoundly relaxed” about the situation. He insisted he had always accepted the need to do whatever possible to strengthen his pledge to hold an in-out referendum before the end of 2017.
Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, standing in for Mr Cameron at Question Time in the Commons, dismissed Tory calls for a bill paving the way for an EU referendum and complained about Conservative criticism of the Queen’s Speech.
He said: “My party has always believed there should be a referendum on Europe when the rules change, when new things are being asked of the UK within the EU. I think it’s a question of when, not if, because the rules are bound to change.
“I suggest we should stick to what we have done as a government in giving that guarantee to the British people rather than constantly shifting the goalposts.”
But former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: “I have done a lot of unusual things in the 26 years I have been an MP but this is the first time I have voted for a Prime Minister to defend him from his own party.”
And shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: “This vote is a further devastating blow to the PM’s authority. David Cameron’s backbenchers have shown they simply won’t give up until he gives in.”
David Maddox: Major comparison is unfair - this is far worse
DAVID Cameron knew he was in for a terrible beating and tried to limit the damage.
Before the vote on Europe he said that it was “not a rebellion” but there was no disguising the fact yesterday that he has lost control of his party on the issue which has split it since the political demise of Margaret Thatcher.
A total of 114 Tory MPs voted for the amendment to the Queen’s Speech regretting it did not have an EU referendum bill. They voted not to support Mr Cameron’s policy of staying in the EU because they want out.
What is more worrying for Mr Cameron is his party Europhobic future. Many of the rebels were the 2010 intake.
Step by step this has been a rapid progression in the Prime Minister losing control of his party. There have been two previous humiliating votes on Europe. There was the rejection of reform of the Lords and the rejection of gay marriage from his MPs.
Mr Cameron detests comparisons with John Major whose government fell apart over Europe. His situation is far worse than Mr Major’s. He is now leading a party of UK separatists who want out of the EU. Nobody suggested that over the Maastricht Treaty. Mr Major also only had a small number of rebels to deal with, Mr Cameron has more than half his party.
Leading figures such as Education Secretary Michael Gove are now openly saying they want to leave the EU.
And Nigel Farage and Ukip’s recent political successes have accelerated the Tory rush to the EU exit door.