British Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to defuse a rebellion in his Conservative Party faltered as Tory lawmakers and his Liberal Democrat coalition partners criticized his proposal to support a bill authorizing a referendum on U.K. membership in the European Union.
Cameron made a “a second-best offer,” John Baron, one of the Tory rebels, told the BBC today. The Liberal Democrats oppose the proposal and lawmakers should focus on reviving the economy, a party spokesman said.
With the ruckus over EU membership overshadowing Cameron’s trip to the U.S., the Conservatives late yesterday said he would back a lawmaker-sponsored bill to authorize a popular vote by 2017 on the U.K. staying in the 27-nation bloc. The government can’t sponsor the bill due to opposition from Cameron’s coalition partners. Meantime, a growing number of Conservatives plan a Parliamentary vote against his legislative program to protest his failure to deliver such a bill.
Citing the difficulty in steering through a private member’s bill, Baron, who is organizing the Tory rebuke of Cameron, said, “a far better approach is to have the courage to support our amendment.” That would “force Labour and the Liberals to decide, and if we won, the prime minister would then have the mandate to then introduce legislation through the normal channels, which would have a far better chance of success.”
Conservative lawmaker Peter Bone, another rebel, told the BBC today that if he and his supporters can win the vote on the amendment “the prime minister can go to the deputy prime minister and say Parliament has spoken, we must introduce this as a government bill.”
The move is Cameron’s second in four months to try to satisfy his party, which has pressed him to take a more hostile line to the EU. In January, he promised to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership to reduce the bloc’s influence and put the result to voters by 2017.
“Of course that is a much more difficult route for legislation than on government time, but it means we can have a debate on this policy,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC Radio 4. “Conservative MPs will be able to vote together for a referendum in the next Parliament. Other parties who have set their faces against giving people that choice will have to explain that.”
While rank-and-file Conservatives initially praised Cameron’s strategy, they reacted to a setback in local elections this month and gains by the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party by saying voters didn’t believe Cameron was serious about pushing the bill if he won the 2015 general election. They demanded he publish legislation sooner.
About 70 members of his party have put their names to the parliamentary amendment expressing “regret” that no provision paving the way for a vote was included in the legislative program outlined last week. Academics said it may be the first time since 1946 that a significant number of members of a governing party have done so. If the amendment is selected for a vote by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, it will come before the chamber by May 15.
The Conservatives are outnumbered by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party, which also opposes announcing a referendum four years in advance.
“This seems to be just the latest panicked response from the prime minister who is now following, rather than leading his backbenchers,” Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, said in an e-mail. “David Cameron is a prime minister who has both lost control of the agenda and lost control of his party.”
Should the bill pass second reading, it will need Parliamentary time, which again requires a vote. The Liberal Democrats said today parliamentary time should focus on boosting jobs and growth. “Bringing it before Parliament is the easy bit,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University. “How do you give it time without a majority supporting it?”