British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected the suggestion that his proposal to support a bill authorizing a referendum on European Union membership reflected panic over a rebellion in his Conservative Party.
“Not at all,” Cameron told the U.K.’s Channel 5 News while he was in Boston today, when asked if he was panicking by pushing the bill out. “If this was a Conservative-only government we would just get on and legislate. We can’t do that because we are in coalition.”
With the ruckus over EU membership overshadowing his trip to the U.S., the Conservatives late yesterday said Cameron 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 Liberal Democrat coalition partners. The opposition Labour Party also opposes the referendum. Meantime, a growing number of Conservatives plan a Parliamentary vote against his legislative program to protest his failure to deliver such a bill earlier.
Cameron rejected as “completely wrong” the idea that he is constantly shifting his position under pressure from his rank-and-file lawmakers. One of the premier’s political aides, Alan Sendorek, returned to London early from the U.S. this morning to help deal with the rebels at home.
The bill that was published today calls for a referendum by Dec. 31, 2017, on the question ``Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?''
Cameron has 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.
Citing the difficulty in steering 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.”
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.
“When all the dust has settled I think that people will be able to see that there is one party, the Conservative Party, offering that in-out referendum and two other mainstream parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who oppose an in-out referendum,” Cameron told Sky News in Boston today.
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.
The rebels “keep coming back for more,” Mark Stuart, lecturer in politics at Nottingham University said in an interview in London today. “The referendum promise brought Cameron three months of silence. There were no rebellions on Europe. But they will always be coming back.”
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.
“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.”