U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called on members of his Conservative Party who are opposed to the European Union not to back a call for a referendum on EU membership in a vote in the House of Commons tonight.
“When your neighbor’s house is on fire, your first impulse should be to help them put out the flames, not least to protect your own house,” Cameron told lawmakers in London in a statement on yesterday’s EU summit in Brussels. “This is not the time to argue about walking away, not just for their sakes but for ours.”
Cameron is attempting to focus on the urgency of resolving the euro-area crisis as well as maintaining party discipline. About 70 of the 305 Conservatives in the Commons are threatening to back a non-binding motion calling for a referendum, increasing dissent over Europe. Conservatives are plagued by memories of the infighting that dominated Tory governments until John Major’s 1997 election defeat.
The premier said the turmoil in the euro area is presenting opportunities to change the EU and that Britain should stay within the bloc. His government plans to impose a “three-line whip” requiring the backing of all its lawmakers against the referendum motion.
“The time for reform is coming,” Cameron said. “That is the prize. Let us not be distracted from seizing it.”
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.
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.