DRAFT legislation for referendum on EU membership is to be published by the Conservative Party in an attempt to head off further splits on the issue.
In an unusual step, a draft bill will write into law the pledge made by the Prime Minister earlier this year to hold an in-out vote on membership.
Last night’s move came as David Cameron won the support of United States president Barack Obama in seeking reform of the European Union before staging the referendum on UK membership.
Senior Conservatives hope the draft bill will be enough to persuade 70 Tory MPs to drop their support for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, criticising it for failing to recognise a future referendum.
It is expected that the legislation will be put forward by a back-bench MP and then supported by Tory ministers, as any attempt by Mr Cameron to introduce the bill would be unlikely to attract Liberal Democrat support, which is crucial to its success.
Last night, it was reported that, while the Prime Minister was “open” to the idea, he had not discussed it with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg,
although there are talks going on between the two parties.
But Conservative sources denied the move was an attempt to address the threat posed by the UK Independence Party, which, according to an ICM poll published last night, has doubled its support to 18 per cent in the wake of last week’s English council elections.
Reacting to news of the bill, Tory Nadine Dorries said the move “shows the Prime Minister is listening to both his back-benches and, more importantly, people in the country”, but she warned 2017 was too long to wait for a referendum.
She said: “I’m afraid that isn’t going to be bought by the people, who will want to see something come through much quicker than this.”
She said the move was “tactical” and would force Labour and the Lib Dems to show they were opposed to the referendum.
Ms Dorries added: “If we can give the gay marriage promise legislation, if we bring through an AV referendum, then we need to bring through this much quicker.”
Tory ministers are said to have been told they may abstain on the rebel Queen’s Speech amendment, but cannot back it.
Addressing the issue of EU membership in Washington yesterday, the Prime Minister said his strategy was in the
“national interest”, and Mr Obama said it “makes sense” to see whether Britain could “fix” its relationship with the EU before deciding whether to quit.
The president, speaking alongside Mr Cameron following talks at the White House in Washington, stressed that the decision on the UK’s future was a matter for the British people.
But he added: “David’s basic point that you probably want to see if you can fix what is broken in a very important relationship before you break it off makes some sense to me.
“I know that David’s been very active in seeking some
reforms internal to the EU. Those are tough negotiations, you’ve got a lot of countries
involved, I recognise that.
“We haven’t yet evaluated how successful those reforms will be. I at least would be interested in seeing whether or not those are successful before rendering a final judgment.”
Speaking at a press conference following his talks with Mr Obama, Mr Cameron insisted that a referendum now would not be in the national interest, as voters would be presented with a “false choice” between an unreformed EU or British exit.
And he stressed the potential benefits for the UK of a mooted free trade deal between the EU and US, which he said could be worth up to £10 billion a year to Britain. “Everything [is] driven by what is in the British national interest,” he said.