A call for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union before the next general election reflected the opinion of most British people, Tory Eurosceptic Adam Afriyie said yesterday.
Mr Afriyie insisted he was right to ignore warnings from the Tory leadership and press ahead with an attempt to bring forward the date of an in/out referendum from 2017 to next year.
But the Conservative MP for Windsor saw his proposed change to the European Union (Referendum) Bill heavily defeated in the Commons yesterday by 249 votes to 15, majority 234. Of those MPs who voted in favour of an early poll, 14 were Tory and one was Labour.
Among the Conservatives who voted in favour of bringing the date forward were Shipley MP Philip Davies and Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers.
However, some senior Tory figures were unhappy about Mr Afriyie’s decision to put his amendment to the vote because it apparently showed there was still discontent within the ranks of the party on the UK’s membership of the EU.
And a number of Tory Eurosceptic MPs also ducked supporting the backbencher’s demand for an early referendum, saying Prime Minister David Cameron should be given time to repatriate powers from Brussels.
James Wharton, the Conservative MP for Stockton South who is bringing forward the legislation as a Private Member’s Bill, described Mr Afriyie’s amendment as a “waste of time”.
But Mr Afriyie – who has previously been talked about as a leadership candidate – said he was right to demand an in/out referendum on October 23, next year.
In a statement, he said: “I tried my hardest to give the British people a 2014 referendum. By putting the 2014 option before Parliament, I was reflecting the opinion of the vast majority of the British people.
“A 2014 vote was the only way to guarantee that the British people would get their say on our relationship with the EU and show that as Conservatives, we were listening to the public.”
He said he would now work hard to ensure Mr Wharton’s Bill made it through Parliament.
But Mr Wharton was unhappy that his colleague had put his amendment to a vote.
Speaking outside the chamber, Mr Wharton added: “At the end of the day, Adam’s amendment would have meant the chances of this important Bill passing would be diminished and I am pleased so many MPs voted with their good sense to ensure that we do everything we can to let Britain decide.”
And fellow Tory John Baron, one of the Tory Eurosceptics unhappy about calls for an early referendum, said: “We need time for the Prime Minister to try and repatriate powers from the EU.
“Success will influence the outcome, failure will be plain for all to see. If no powers are repatriated then that will be plain for all to see.”
Speaking in the chamber earlier, Europe Minister David Lidington said a referendum next year would cause an “unnecessary complication” as Scotland is due to vote on whether it wishes to remain part of the UK next September.
He said: “I believe the choice the British people deserve is a choice between membership of the European Union on reformed and renegotiated terms or leaving.”
After debating the timing of the referendum, a number of amendments to the question that should be put in any vote were defeated.
The debate was adjourned until next week, when MPs will consider further amendments on the conduct of the referendum.
The Bill is likely to receive a Third Reading next Friday. If it clears the Commons it will go before peers for further scrutiny in the House of Lords.