Backbench Tories force Commons vote on EU referendum

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   By a Newsnet reporter

Backbench Conservative MPs from the Eurosceptic wing of the party are to force a Commons vote on an early referendum on EU membership.

Two prominent Eurosceptic Tory MPs, John Baron and Peter Bone, have tabled an amendment to the motion welcoming the Queen’s Speech expressing their “regret” that the government’s legislative programme does not contain a bill on holding a referendum.

The move is considered a sign that senior members of the party and Tory backbenchers are prepared to be more outspoken on EU membership, putting increased pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to firm up his commitment to hold a referendum on the EU sometime after the next General Election.

Mr Baron said: “It would send a clear message that we are not going away and that there is a large body of opinion inside and outside this place that believes that legislation is right for a EU referendum.”

Meanwhile Mr Bone insisted that while he did not doubt the prime minister’s commitment to hold a referendum if the Tories won the next general election.  The MP added that he believed legislation was necessary in this session of parliament to make sure that the referendum would go ahead even if Mr Cameron was not returned to power after the next General Election, and that only opposition from the Liberal Democrats was blocking it. 

Mr Bone said:

“What I am doing is helping the Prime Minister. The one reason he could not bring it forward is because of the Liberal Democrats.”

If, as seems likely, the Speaker accepts the amendment, it will be put to the vote in the Commons next week.  The government has signalled that it is unlikely to issue a whip on the motion, permitting Conservative MPs to vote freely.  It is believed that a number of government ministers may vote in favour of the amendment.

With the Conservatives’ coalition partners the Liberal Democrats strongly opposed to an early referendum on EU membership, the amendment is unlikely to pass, however a strong showing amongst Conservative MPs in favour of the amendment will further weaken the Prime Minister’s hand as he struggles to assert his authority on his increasingly fractuous party.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Mr Cameron said: 

“The amendment has only just been tabled and he will want to consider it carefully, but he’s already said he’s very happy to look at all ways of strengthening his commitment to a referendum in the next Parliament.”

The move will be a concern to the Prime Minister, coming soon after the Conservatives suffered heavy losses to UKIP during last week’s English local elections.