The Tory plan for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has cleared its first hurdle in the House of Lords.
But there were warnings from Labour and Liberal Democrat backbenchers that the legislation, which guarantees a vote on EU membership in 2017, could be delayed and fail to make it back to the House of Commons in time to become law.
The backbench peers intend to table a series of amendments to the European Union (Referendum) Bill, meaning it could run out of parliamentary time.
Tory James Wharton, the backbench MP who brought forward the legislation as a Private Member’s Bill, said there was a chance that he or other Conservative Eurosceptics would try again next year if this happened.
Tory MP Philip Davies (Shipley) yesterday asked whether the Government would bring forward what is known as a carry-over motion, which would allow the Bill to make further progress in the next Parliament.
But this only applies to Government legislation, meaning the Bill has to make it through Parliament in this session.
Former European Commissioner Lord Mandelson claimed Foreign Secretary William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron had been “taken hostage by the militant tendency” within the Tories.
The Labour peer also told the Conservatives to stop grandstanding for the Ukip vote by demanding a referendum, adding talk of leaving the EU only created uncertainty for investors and would threaten British jobs.
Lord Oakeshott insisted an in/out EU vote was the “coward’s way out” of political problems and an “abdication of responsibility”. The Lib Dem, who is an ally of Business Secretary Vince Cable, pledged to introduce amendments.
Criticism from Tory peers included Lord Garel-Jones, who questioned the motives behind the plans, even suggesting it could be an attempt to win BNP voters.
He insisted his party should not “pander to Ukip” but instead “confront them with a barrage of facts”, and said the European Union (Referendum) Bill was unnecessary.