A TORY backbencher has warned his party it risks losing the next election unless it brings forward a proposed referendum on Britain’s future in Europe.
Adam Afriyie yesterday pressed his case for the referendum to be held next year but faces strong opposition from many on his own benches, including Eurosceptics, who fear such a move would fracture the current fragile Conservative consensus on Europe.
He was speaking as MPs debated a backbench Bill which would guarantee a referendum is held in 2017.
David Cameron has promised voters will be given a chance to vote on EU membership after the Government has renegotiated the terms following the next election.
But opposition from his Liberal Democrat coalition partners means instead of the Government pushing the legislation through Parliament the Conservative leadership has instead supported a Bill by backbencher James Wharton.
Mr Afriyie, who has come under fire from Tory colleagues for breaking ranks on the issue, is trying to amend the Bill to bring the date forward.
He told MPs: “We are completely united as a party in wanting a say for the British people. We have a difference on timing.
“And it strikes me that the majority of our constituents and the British people want a referendum before the next election.
“I’ve never known a time in British politics when the political establishment has been so disconnected, so remote and so in opposition and out of touch with public opinion.”
He added: “And I would just say with all humility and kindness to my colleagues that by chasing an EU referendum dream for 2017 we risk losing one in 2014 and throwing away the 2015 election.”
Labour MPs raised a series of issues to try to delay the Bill with more than 50 amendments tabled.
Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman described the use of a Private Member’s Bill to secure a referendum as “unseemly and furtive”.
Rival whips appeared to clash over alleged time-wasting after Labour MPs elected not to vote after forcing a vote on the issue of whether Gibraltar would be included.
At one stage backbench Tory MPs threw a paper aeroplane to each other as the Bill neared the end of its first day at report stage.
In an unusual move, Conservative MPs have been placed under a three-line whip to attend the Commons on Fridays in a bid to help the Bill progress.
It means there are almost certainly enough MPs available to call and win closure motions, which can cut short debates.
MPs began discussing the Bill after one of the most significant interventions yet from business on Britain’s future in Europe.
Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn warned of the implications of an EU exit as he launched the company’s new Qashqai model which will be built in Sunderland where the company employs more than 6,000 people.
“Obviously it’s going to be a major factor happening and we are going to need to consider what does it mean for us for the future.
“I’m not worried about Sunderland. Sunderland is a very competitive plant, it’s a very productive plant and it’s a European plant based in the UK.
“If anything has to change, we need to reconsider our strategy and our investments for the future,” he said.
The comment was seized on by Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna.
He said: “The comments of Nissan’s CEO underline the absurdity of Tories promising more investment and exports while seeking to take us out of the EU.”