David Cameron was last night under pressure to defy his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and stage a referendum on Europe before the next general election.
Senior Conservatives urged the Prime Minister to hold a “mandate referendum” on his plan to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership as early next spring, in a bid to halt the rise of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (Ukip).
Ministers warned they could not act without the support of Lib Dems, as the Tories lack an overall Commons majority.
However, former Conservative leadership contender David Davis said they should put the concept to a Commons vote and challenge Labour and the Lib Dems to vote against it.
“It would be very interesting for the Liberals – and indeed the Labour Party – to vote against giving the public a say on this matter,” he said. “I think the politics of that for them are very difficult. If it was rejected by the other parties, I think that would actually cause a new dividing line in British politics.
“The Lib Dems are one sixth or one seventh of the coalition MPs. Should they have a veto on everything? I don’t think so. Should they have the right to say ‘no’ to something which is so fundamental to the future of the country? I don’t think so.”
Mr Davis said staging a referendum to coincide with the elections to the European Parliament next May would be “an absolute Ukip killer”.
The Prime Minister could then go ahead with his plan hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership once the renegotiation was complete after the general election in 2015.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the lack of an overall Conservative majority meant it was unlikely they could hold a mandate referendum before the general election, but did not rule out putting it to a Commons vote.
“It is likely that our proposal would be defeated in the current House of Commons. That’s a constraint but of course we haven’t ruled that out, we will be considering the options on this,” he said. Mr Hague said voters who supported Ukip should be treated with respect.
It was now up to the government to get its message across more forcefully, he said, adding that ministers were doing every-thing they could to cut immigration, cap the welfare bill and bring down the deficit.
Mr Hague said it was “fair game” to claim Ukip’s spending commitments “did not add up”.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond suggested the Conservatives could publish a draft bill before the election, without a vote in the Commons, to underline their commitment to an in/out referendum in the next parliament.
“We are looking at doing that and I think that would be a very good idea,” he said.
Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps said there would be a bill setting out what they would do and how they would carry out the EU renegotiations, although he did not make clear when it would be published.
“Of course we may challenge other parties to support it. If we can get people to support it, then it can come before the parliament,” he said.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes made it clear his party would oppose a referendum on Europe in the current parliament.
“I think it would be madness to have a referendum and spend all our time thinking about whether we should be in or out of Europe when the priority is to sort out the economy,” he said.
‘No Ukip deal with Cameron’
Ukip leader Nigel Farage yesterday made clear there could be no deal with the Conservatives as long as Mr Cameron was leader.
Speaking after his party’s gains in last week’s council elections in England and Wales, Mr Farage said: “Mr Cameron set the course of this coalition government.
“His own leadership since 2005 has been pro-EU, pro open-door immigration and pro building wind turbines. He is not going to U-turn on all of those things.”
However, he suggested Ukip could form a pact with an alternative Conservative leader, although he did not consider it a priority.
“If he was removed and somebody else was put in place and wanted to come and talk to us and say, ‘Shall we find an accommodation?’ we’d consider it, but it is not my priority,” he said.
Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom said the party’s priority was to get elected to Westminster so it could challenge Mr Cameron directly.