Up to 70 Conservative MPs are set to defy David Cameron and back a referendum on Europe. One tells Channel 4 News they need to stand up to stop Europe policy being a “dog’s breakfast”.
All MPs will vote on whether to hold a public ballot on the UK’s position in the European Union.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who has imposed a three-line whip on Conservative MPs that requires them to vote against the motion, told the Commons the timing was wrong and that it was in Britain’s national interests to be in the EU.
It was a last-ditch plea from the prime minister to prevent the most serious challenge to his authority since he took office.
But Mr Cameron also tried to appease rebels, adding: “Those who are supporting today’s motion, but don’t actually want to leave the EU, I say to you this – I respect your views, we disagree about ends, not about means, I support your aims.
“Like you, I want fundamental reform, like you I want to refashion our membership of the EU so that it better serves our nation’s interests.”
Like you, I want to refashion our membership of the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron
Conservatives have accused party whips of coming down too hard by using the strongest possible disciplinary measure.
Around 60 Conservative MPs so far have signed the motion calling for a referendum. The rebel MPs are in a minority in the House of Commons as Labour and Liberal Democrats are expected to vote against the motion, and they will not change the overall result. But the move will be seen as a public challenge to the prime minister.
FactCheck: Do people care for an EU referendum?
Conservative MP Douglas Carswell is one of the MPs planning to defy Mr Cameron and vote for the rebel motion.
He told Channel 4 News: “For 40 years we’ve left Europe policy to ministers and mandarins and they’ve made a dog’s breakfast of it. How on earth did we manage to get into this situation? By leaving it to the Sir Humphreys and ministers.
“It is about taking control of Europe policy from the Westminster ‘elite’ and giving it to the people.” You can read more on the rebels – as well as the pros and cons of EU membership – here.
Mark Pritchard, secretary of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, said that ministers still had time to drop the three-line whip.
“Conservative backbenchers do not want confrontation, but it is obvious there are some in the government who do want confrontation,” he said.
“Therefore, any wounds endured over this debate, and over the coming months, will be very much self-inflicted.”
Read more on the Europe referendum vote from Political Editor Gary Gibbon
At the EU summit in Brussels yesterday, David Cameron suggested that Britain could exploit the eurozone crisis and start reclaiming some powers from Brussels – a move that was seen as an attempt to pacify Conservative backbenchers.
However Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg immediately issued a statement warning that it was “far too early to speculate” on the UK’s situation in the event of any changes to EU treaties. The Liberal Democrats do not support repatriation of powers from Brussels.
Cameron’s clash with Sarkozy
As David Cameron faced dissent among Conservative party members, he was also embroiled in a row with Nicholas Sarkozy after a six-hour EU summit in Brussels on Sunday.
The clash between the two leaders erupted after Mr Sarkozy tried to restrict the follow-up meeting on Wednesday to the 17 eurozone leaders, excluding Mr Cameron.
“We are sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do,” he said. “You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings.”
According to EU officials, Mr Sarkozy was tired of reading media reports about the advice that Mr Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne were offering the eurozone.
In the end, Mr Cameron won his battle to ensure all 27 EU member states would attend Wednesday’s meeting.