Prime Minister David Cameron stressed the urgency of resolving the euro region’s debt crisis as he tried to maintain discipline in his Conservative Party before U.K. lawmakers vote on the European Union today.
Cameron said Britain’s focus should be on addressing the turmoil in the euro area that is having a “chilling effect” on the U.K. economy, rather than revisiting its role in the EU. His ministers insisted the government will impose a “three-line whip” requiring full lawmaker backing in Parliament in London this evening against a motion seeking a referendum on EU membership.
“I don’t think this is the right time to legislate for an in-out referendum,” Cameron told reporters yesterday after an emergency summit of EU leaders in Brussels. “This is the time to sort out the euro-zone problems.”
Dissent on Europe from a faction of about 70 of the 305 Conservatives in Parliament risks haunting a party plagued by memories of infighting that dominated its previous governments until John Major’s defeat in 1997. The showdown highlights Cameron’s challenge as he seeks to maintain a coalition with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, keep up a deficit squeeze at a time of sluggish economic growth, and shake off the resignation of Defense Secretary Liam Fox.
“It reminds many people in the country of the Major government,” Jim Murphy, an opposition Labour Party spokesman on defense issues, told BBC television’s “Andrew Marr Show” yesterday. “You’ve got unemployment that’s high, you’ve got a minister resigning because of misbehavior and you have massive schisms about Europe. It’s just the way the Tories seem to behave whenever they’re in government.”
Murphy said Labour is giving a “gold-plated” guarantee of support for the government in the vote, which Cameron is likely to win with backing from the Liberal Democrats. This actually makes Conservatives more likely to rebel, as the prospect of defeating the government puts some lawmakers off, according to Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and an expert on parliamentary revolts.
“It’s clever of Labour to support the government,” he said in a telephone interview. “It makes it completely safe for Conservatives to rebel, and that makes them appear split.”
According to Cowley, if more than 41 Conservatives vote against the government, it will be the largest rebellion Cameron has experienced, and a bigger revolt over Europe than any faced by Major in his time in office.
“They’re going to win their side by a country mile,” said John Redwood, a Conservative lawmaker and former Cabinet minister, as he told the BBC he will vote for a referendum. “But I think the public will want to feel that their view was taken seriously, that there was a good debate, and there is a solid body of support in the House of Commons that is allowed to express its view.”
In a YouGov Plc poll published in the Sunday Times newspaper yesterday, 66 percent of people questioned said there should be “a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU” and 20 percent said there shouldn’t be. That result was based on responses from 1,728 adults taken on Oct. 20 and Oct. 21.
Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC Radio 4 this morning the referendum proposal was “the wrong question at the wrong time” and said it would “create additional economic uncertainty.”
Cameron said he will use any future EU treaty revamp needed to avoid future euro-area crises to push for repatriation of powers to the U.K. Yesterday’s summit concluded that “limited” treaty changes may be required to enact plans “on further strengthening of economic convergence within the euro area, on fiscal discipline and deepening economic union.”
“We must safeguard the interests of countries that want to stay outside the euro,” Cameron told reporters. “Any treaty change is an opportunity for Britain to advance our national interest.”
Cameron’s uneasy relationship with Europe will be further scrutinized after his choice to attend a second European summit on Oct. 26, a meeting he described yesterday as “a good thing.”
That decision forced him to cancel visits to Japan and New Zealand on the way to Australia for the previously scheduled gathering of leaders of the Commonwealth, the grouping of former British Empire nations, on Oct. 28. The prime minister, who still plans to go to Australia, had faced pressure to stay in Europe because of the debt crisis.