By a Newsnet reporter
Prime Minister David Cameron is facing the most serious challenge to his leadership after 114 Conservative MPs voted in favour of an amendment to the Queen’s Speech bill expressing “regret” that it did not contain legislation to bring about a referendum on UK membership of the EU.
Although the motion was defeated by 277 votes to 131, the vote was the biggest backbench revolt on Europe since the 2010 election, and the backbench challenge to the Conservative leadership was supported by more MPs than the party had expected.
The amendment was also backed by 11 Labour MPs, four Democratic Unionists, Lib Dem MP John Hemming and Respect’s George Galloway.
Observers had expected that the rebels would struggle to find 100 supporters for their amendment, but in the event 114 Conservative MPs, over one third of the total of 305 Conservatives in the Commons, voted in favour of the motion.
Although the vote was non-binding, and the motion failed to pass, the scale of the mutiny is likely to embolden eurosceptics in the Conservative party, pushing the Prime Minster to take a harder line on Europe as he attempts to prevent his party from losing support to Ukip, which seeks the immediate withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.
Speaking to the BBC after the vote, Conservative MP Peter Bone, one of the sponsors of the amendment, said:
“No Conservative voted against the amendment, many Labour MPs voted for it. 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.”
He added that while he thought that Mr Cameron was “doing all the right things”, the Conservative Party was being “blocked” by Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who are opposed to an in-out referendum on the EU.
John Baron, the Conservative MP who sponsored the motion along with Mr Bone, said that politicians had “broken promises” about EU referendums in the past and although he personally trusted the Prime Minister, he recognised that the Conservatives must rebuild trust with the electorate. He promised to continue to campaign on the issue, saying:
“We are not going to walk away. We need legislation passed in this Parliament for the next Parliament to bridge that deficit of trust.”
Senior Conservatives put on a brave face after the symbolic ballot, stressing that they had allowed their members to vote freely on the issue, except for government ministers.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said:
“This was a free vote. When all the dust has settled, there is one essential fact: one party, the Conservative Party, is committed to a referendum on leaving or staying in the European Union, and the other parties are not.”
Labour said that the result dealt a “devastating blow” to the Prime Minister’s authority and accused him of “caving in” to the demands of his backbenchers.
Earlier this week the Conservatives published their own draft bill setting out the terms for a referendum by the end of 2017. Due to Lib Dem opposition, the bill will not be brought to the Commons as government legislation, but the Conservative leadership have said they will support any backbench MP who chooses to adopt the proposal as a private members’ bill. A ballot is due to be held on Thursday to decide which backbench MPs get priority to table private members bills.