MPs reject a call for a referendum on Europe – but rebels voting against the government have dealt Prime Minister David Cameron a major blow to his authority.
The vote, on a backbench motion calling for a referendum on Europe, was the biggest test of David Cameron’s premiership. He could have allowed a free vote, but opted for a three-line whip in the hope of stifling calls for British withdrawal from the EU.
After a five-hour debate, 483 MPs voted to reject the motion, and 111 for it.
Due to the opposition of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, the motion could not have been carried. Instead, attention was focused on how many Conservative MPs would defy the three-line whip by voting for it.
Early reports suggested around 80 Tory MPs rebelled – a significant number.
Conservative Mark Pritchard, secretary of the backbench 1922 committee, told Channel 4 News he supported the motion.
He said: “Europe as an issue is not going to go away. It’s going to be more, rather than less, of an issue over this parliament. I think that apart from listening to the British people, which is the most important aspect of today’s debate, the government needs to be ahead of the political curve, rather than behind it.”
Tory MP Adam Holloway told the Commons he was resigning as parliamentary aide to Europe Minister David Lidington so he could vote for a referendum.
We disagree about ends, not about means. Prime Minister David Cameron
To cheers, he said he was not prepared to go back on the commitments he had given his constituents, adding: “If Britain’s future as an independent country is not a proper matter for a referendum, then I have absolutely no idea what is.”
The motion, triggered by an e-petition backed by members of the public on the No 10 website, called for a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU, withdraw or seek to renegotiate its relationship with its European partners. It was signed by more than 60 Tory MPs.
At the start of the debate, Mr Cameron said that with the eurozone in crisis, the timing of the motion was wrong and it was in Britain’s national interests to be in the EU.
But he added: “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.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband referred to the weekend’s European summit, at which Mr Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were involved in a row.
He said: “You went in to a summit lecturing the Germans and came out of it being shouted at by the French. Apparently, President Sarkozy, until recently your new best friend, had had enough of the posturing, the hectoring and your know-it-all ways. Mr President, let me say that yesterday you spoke not just for France but Britain as well.”
Mr Miliband compared the prime minister to his predecessors John Major and Margaret Thatcher, who endured battles with their Conservative colleagues over Europe.
Using strong-arm tactics does nothing to help rebuild trust in politicians. Conservative MP David Nuttall
“You should stop negotiating with your backbenchers and start fighting for the national interest,” he said.
Tory MP David Nuttall, who proposed the motion, dismissed Mr Cameron’s claim that the timing was wrong, saying a referendum would not have to be held soon.
“Any argument that now isn’t right time for a referendum to be held is, quite frankly, irrelevant. Even if the motion is passed today, a referendum is still likely to be years away.”
Mr Nuttall criticised the three-line whip imposed on the debate, saying: “Those opposing the motion may well be smiling today, but winning votes in this House using strong-arm tactics does nothing to help rebuild trust in politicians, or persuade the public the majority inside this House are reflecting their views. Those who oppose this motion may well win this battle, but they most certainly will not win the war.”
Conservative MP Douglas Carswell told Channel 4 News he would defy Mr Cameron and vote for the rebel motion, adding: "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." Read more
Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had called for the public to be given a say in the past but “this proposition … is the wrong proposition at the wrong time”.
He said the eurozone was “clearly in crisis” and adding to the economic uncertainty would be irresponsible, while a referendum was usually based on straightforward yes or no answers, not a “multiple choice among vaguely defined propositions”.