Northamptonshire MPs were at the centre of a political controversy last night as the Prime Minister was dealt a “devastating blow” in a vote over an EU referendum.
More than 100 Conservative MPs backed a vote criticising the Government’s failure to bring forward plans to enshrine an EU referendum in law.
A total of 114 Tory MPs, including 13 ministerial aides, voted for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech expressing regret that Government had not included the plans in its new legislative programme, while two more – Wellingborough MP Peter Bone and Kettering MP Philip Holobone – acted as tellers for the vote, taking the total number of supporters to 116.
The Prime Minster insists nothing can be read into the result because he gave backbenchers a free vote, but opponents were quick to smell political blood, claiming the premier had “lost control of his party”.
John Baron, the amendment’s author, told Sky News: “The public don’t trust politicians on this issue, that’s why legislation is important when we promise an in/out referendum in 2017. That’s what this battle is about.”
Mr Bone, one of the MPs who triggered the vote, told the BBC: “This is not a rebellion, this is a free vote. In fact, to a certain extent, the Prime Minister was encouraging us to vote for the amendment because, after all, it’s his own policy.”
Despite the support, the amendment was defeated by 277 votes to 130, majority 147 but Labour claimed it left the PM badly bruised.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: “This vote is a further devastating blow to the Prime Minister’s authority.
“It demonstrates that David Cameron has managed to turn a Europe issue into a leadership issue.
“This is a Prime Minister who has lost control of the agenda and tonight lost control of his party.
“David Cameron’s backbenchers have shown they simply won’t give up until he gives in.”
Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell mocked Mr Cameron. “I have done a lot of unusual things in the 26 years I have been a Member of Parliament but this is the first time I have voted for a Prime Minister to defend him from his own party,” he said.
Despite Mr Cameron insisting he was “profoundly relaxed” about the vote, he gave orders from the United States, where he has been involved in discussions with world leaders, for the publication of a draft bill paving the way for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in the next parliament.
The move, however, failed to stem the activities of his party’s eurosceptics, who pushed ahead with the amendment expressing ‘regret’.
Tory backbenchers were given a free vote on the referendum amendment to the Queen’s Speech motion - which is non-binding - although Conservative ministers were instructed to abstain.
Mr Cameron insisted the result could not be viewed as a rebellion. Speaking to journalists at the UN, he said: “I don’t think people can read in anything really to the scale of that free vote.
“Not least because only the Conservative Party has a very clear position and a very clear policy about what needs to happen in Europe.”
The political manoeuvering has exposed deep anger among Tory MPs, bringing simmering tensions within the party ranks spilled out into the open.
Foreign Secretary William Hague attempted to downplay the result insisting he told MPs the could vote as they wished.
“Conservative MPs were able to vote for it or they were able to abstain, entirely their choice.
“I think the whole party, of course, would like to be able to proceed with legislation on this subject, we can’t because we are in a Coalition.
“When all the dust settles on this there is one essential fact, one party, the Conservative Party, is committed to a referendum on leaving or staying in the European Union and the other parties are not committed to that.”
Mr Cameron promised an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 earlier this year but eurosceptics want the commitment written into law. The Tory’s draft Bill would enable that to happen but would have to be taken up by a backbencher to be considered in Parliament. Opposition from Labour and the Lib Dems, however, would prevent it making progress.
Earlier, Nick Clegg, standing in for the Prime Minister at question time in the Commons, dismissed Tory calls for a Bill paving the way for a public vote on remaining within the EU and complained about Conservative criticism of the Queen’s Speech.
The Deputy Prime Minister said: “My party has always believed that there should be a referendum on Europe when the rules change, when new things are being asked of the UK within the EU.
“That’s what we had in our last manifesto, that’s what we have now acted on in Government by passing legislation, together in the coalition, just two years ago, giving an absolute legal guarantee in legislation for the first time ever that when the rules change there will be a referendum - and by the way I think it’s a question of when, not if, because the rules are bound to change.
“I suggest that we should stick to what we have done as a Government in giving that guarantee to the British people rather than constantly shifting the goalposts.”