Cameron suffers revolt by 116 Tories over EU referendum

Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron
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THE Tory revolt over Europe soared to new heights last night as David Cameron suffered another mass rebellion in the Commons and was forced to slap down publicly one backbencher who revealed plans to stand on a joint election ticket with UKIP.

Following a six-hour Commons debate on the Queen’s Speech, dominated by Conservative attacks on the European Union, more than 100 backbench Tories voted in favour of a motion expressing “regret” at the lack of an EU referendum Bill in the Government’s legislative plans.

Mr Cameron had claimed to be “relaxed” about the prospect of his backbenchers voting to condemn their own Government’s Queen’s Speech, allowing them a free vote with only Ministers ordered not to support the motion.

But he had hoped to buy off dozens of MPs with the publication of a draft EU referendum Bill on Tuesday, setting out proposals for a public vote before the end of 2017 if the Conservatives are in sole charge of the country.

The move had little impact on last night’s vote, however, as 116 Tories – around half the party’s backbenchers – delivered an unprecedented challenge to the Queen’s Speech alongside 15 MPs from other parties.

The Tory numbers were significantly greater than had been anticipated, and well beyond the 81 MPs who defied whips to vote in favour of a referendum last year.

John Baron, the Tory backbencher who put forward the motion, described the result as “hugely significant”, adding: “We are winning the argument.”

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said Mr Cameron had “lost control of the agenda, and lost control of his party”.

The Prime Minister’s authority was called into further question when rebel MP Nadine Dorries, only recently back in the Tory fold following her suspension for an unauthorised jaunt to the jungle with a reality TV show, said she planned to stand on a joint Tory-UKIP ticket in 2015.

“Many of us think it’s important that the Right unites,” she said.

But her plan was immediately dismissed by Mr Cameron, who was asked about her comments while abroad at the UN.

“The Conservative Party doesn’t do pacts and deals,” the Prime Minister said. “We are set to win the election outright. That is our aim and that what we will deliver.”

Eight Yorkshire Tories backed last night’s motion, including three Parliamentary Private Secretaries – unpaid members of the Government ranks.

They were Stuart Andrew, Julian Sturdy and Alec Shelbrooke, who joined David Davis, Philip Davies, Craig Whittaker, Jason McCartney and Martin Vickers in supporting a referendum. Respect MP George Galloway also voted in favour.

All eyes will now turn to the annual ballot for private members’ Bills, due to take place in the Commons this morning. The first few MPs whose names are drawn out of the hat will have the opportunity to bring their own Bill before Parliament to debate.

Chancellor George Osborne made clear he would like to see the Conservatives’ draft EU referendum Bill adopted by a Tory MP.

“It is open to any MPs who do well in that ballot to adopt the draft Bill, take it forward as the basis for legislation,” he said.

“We will do everything we can to make it the law.”

But with Labour and the Lib Dems opposed, his party simply does not have the majority to push their Bill through the House.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said the Tories had become obsessed with Europe once again, and were now putting jobs and inward investment at risk.

“Conservative backbenchers, with the blessing of many Conservative frontbenchers, are proposing an amendment that aims to break our ties with our main trading partner, blight inward investment into the UK, and put at risk upwards of three million jobs,” Mr Balls said.

The West Yorkshire MP said Labour was “not against the idea of referendums”, but that the time would come with a new EU treaty.

“If there were a change in the balance of power in the treaties, we would support a referendum, but it would be wrong to do so now,” Mr Balls said.

Earlier in the day, Deputy Prime Minister and Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg had taken a similar line when standing in at Prime Minster’s Questions, while adding that he expects a referendum to be inevitable at some stage.

“My party has always believed there should be a referendum on Europe when the rules change,” the Liberal Democrat leader said.

“That’s what we had in our last manifesto.

“And I think it is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’, because the rules are bound to change.”