David Cameron faces mounting pressure over EU membership after Tory MPs tabled an amendment to the Queen’s speech in a bid to force a Commons vote on whether to hold a referendum.
In the latest blow to the prime minister’s authority, a group of Conservative MPs unhappy at the failure to include plans for a referendum in the speech have tabled an amendment which could see the matter put to a vote next Tuesday.
The move is a sign that both senior members of the party and backbenchers are prepared to be more vocal on the issue of Europe.
Michael Portillo and Boris Johnson have become the latest high-profile figures to claim that Britain should be ready to quit the EU.
Earlier this week, Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s longest serving chancellor, who was said to have been the catalyst for her resignation after he resigned over Europe, became the most senior Tory to openly call for Britain to withdraw from Europe.
Peter Bone MP, a backbencher who tabled the measure in the Commons, said that he hoped to show the Tory leadership that there was “significant parliamentary demand” to enshrine the referendum pledge in law before the general election.
In response, Mr Cameron lashed out at Tory “pessimists” demanding immediate withdrawal from the EU. Despite growing calls to leave Europe, or prepare to exit, he said that he believed it was “possible” to push through changes to the EU.
“I am faced as I do so, if you like, by two groups of pessimists,” he said at a speech in central London.
“There are some pro-European pessimists who say, ‘you have to, in Europe, simply sign up to every single thing that anyone in the EU suggests. You sign every treaty, you sign everything – there is no alternative’.
What I am doing is helping the prime minister. Peter Bone
“I think they are completely wrong. The second group of pessimists say there is no prospect of reforming the EU, you simply have to leave. I think they are wrong too.
“I think it is possible to change and reform this organisation and change and reform Britain’s relationship with it.”
It is expected that the speaker will accept the amendments and Mr Bone’s intervention will go to a vote, although it is unlikely that it will be passed.
However, the move will be no less concerning for Mr Cameron, coming closely after Ukip’s gains in the last local elections. Mr Bone claims to have already had the backing of a number of MPs.
A day after announcing that she would be rejoining the Tories, Nadine Dorries, who had the whip withdrawn for appearing on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, said that she would sign the rebel amendment.
The Mid Bedfordshire MP told BBC News: “I think it is absolutely right that we should have a referendum as soon as possible. I know that the position is that we should be renegotiating.
“Actually, people were given a clear choice when they were given a choice to go into the EU – it was a yes or no to go in. I think people deserve that choice to come out, and they deserve it soon.”
Mr Bone insisted that he did not doubt the prime minister’s commitment to stage a referendum if the Tories won the next general election, but said including legislation in this session of parliament would help ensure the vote went ahead even if Mr Cameron was not returned to No 10.
“What I am doing is helping the prime minister. The one reason he could not bring it forward is because of the Liberal Democrats.
I think it is absolutely right that we should have a referendum as soon as possible. Nadine Dorries MP
“I would expect the Lib Dems to vote against this and the Tories to vote for it, that will strengthen the hand of the prime minister.
“The idea that this can wait until the general election is not good enough. If Labour won the general election they would not bring it in.”
Writing in the Times, Mr Portillo launched an attack on Mr Cameron’s handling of Europe, saying: “You cannot imagine Margaret Thatcher approaching the issue in such an insincere and political way.”
Although Mr Johnson did not say that he would quit the EU immediately, he said it was “less clear” that Britain would suffer by staying in the EU. He said that Britain should try and renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership, adding: “But we should be prepared to leve if we cannot get what we want.”