DAVID Cameron is braced for another potentially divisive Commons vote on Europe, despite publishing a draft bill paving the way for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in the next parliament.
The Prime Minister insisted he was “profoundly relaxed” about the vote on an amendment by Conservative eurosceptics expressing “regret” that there was no government bill for a referendum included in the Queen’s Speech.
But there was deep anger among Conservative MPs on both sides as months of simmering tensions within the party ranks spilled out into the open.
In a move which could pave the way for a referendum by 2017 if the Tories win the next election, the party put forward draft legislation which will be taken through as a private member’s bill.
The draft bill will not be given government time because the Lib Dems have refused to back it. But the Conservative leadership insisted they believe it could pass.
Mr Cameron said he was not panicking or being forced into producing the bill because of the amendment to the Queen’s Speech.
Supporters of the amendment – which would not be binding on ministers – were predicting last night that around 100 Tory MPs would vote for it in the Commons today.
Mr Cameron rejected as “completely wrong” the idea that he was constantly shifting his position under pressure from his rank-and-file.
He added: “When all the dust has settled I think that people will be able to see that there is one party, the Conservative Party, offering that in-out referendum and two other mainstream parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who oppose an in-out referendum.”
He conceded that some Tories wanted to have a referendum immediately, but added: “That’s not my view.”
The six-clause bill produced by the Conservatives states that a referendum will be held on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union before 31 December, 2017.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “David Cameron has said if he is Prime Minister, there will be an in-out referendum in the next parliament and that in this parliament, we will look at all options to underline the fact that our commitment to the referendum is absolute.”
Labour claimed that committing to hold a referendum in four years’ time is not the “right choice” for the UK.
“Our agenda is reform and change within Europe, not exit from the European Union,” said shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander.
The Lib Dems accused their coalition partners of “navel-gazing” over Europe and the UK Independence Party described that bill as “nothing more than gesture politics”.