Lawmakers from David Cameron’s Conservative Party voted against the government’s legislative program in a show of defiance over his policy toward the rest of Europe.
A total of 133 members of the 650-seat Parliament, 116 of them Conservative, voted yesterday to express “regret” over last week’s Queen’s Speech -- when the legislative agenda is announced. They were unhappy that it didn’t include a provision for a referendum on continued European Union membership. Their bid was defeated by the combined votes of Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the opposition Labour Party.
It was the first time since 1946 that members of a governing party had lodged an objection to a Queen’s Speech, according to Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University. Faced with the scale of the rebellion, Cameron was forced to declare the first so-called free vote on a Queen’s Speech since the 19th century, effectively saying that the governing party had no opinion on its own legislative program.
“The prime minister said yesterday, ‘no more concessions, this is the line in the sand,’” Labour’s Chris Leslie told Parliament at the close of the debate. “But they’ve got to keep feeding the beast.”
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said leaving the EU now as demanded by some Tory lawmakers would be “calamitous” for Britain. The “pick and choose” approach advocated by Cameron, while “seductive,” will deliver only largely symbolic changes, he said.
At the 2010 general election, Clegg promised a referendum if there was a significant change in Britain’s relationship with the EU. Yesterday, he told lawmakers he believed a referendum was a question of “when, not if,” because the euro-region crisis is changing the structure of EU. In the meantime, Britain should “get stuck in and lead from the front,” he told LBC radio today.
Speaking to reporters in New York yesterday, Cameron had insisted that it was Labour and the Liberal Democrats who faced the biggest questions over Europe.
“You can make your response sticking your head in the sand and pretending nothing has changed and just carrying on and accepting everything that comes out of Brussels,” Cameron told reporters. “This is not a sensible approach, although it does seem to be the approach some in British politics seem to take.”
Cameron’s January pledge of a referendum on whether to stay in the EU failed to satisfy Tory lawmakers who want the vote to be held before the 2015 general election rather than in 2017.
Cameron cannot introduce government legislation on an EU referendum because the Liberal Democrats oppose it. Instead, the Conservatives this week published a draft bill guaranteeing a vote by end-2017. The so-called private member’s bill will be steered through Parliament by Tory lawmaker James Wharton, with the entire party under orders to back it.
The latest attempt to make Cameron give more ground on the EU came hours before the vote. Nadine Dorries, a lawmaker who was admitted back into the party last week, told the Spectator magazine that she wanted to run in the 2015 general election on the joint ticket for the Conservatives and the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, and that colleagues wanted to do the same.
The prime minister rejected the idea. “The Conservative Party doesn’t do pacts or deals,” he told reporters.
In a speech to business people in Birmingham later today, Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable will say the Conservatives are putting the economy at risk by raising the prospect of an exit from the EU, and of being driven simply by UKIP’s results in local council elections this month.
“It is simply self-indulgent and reckless for parties or individuals to risk so much in order to address one concern raised in a council election by just seven percent of the electorate,” Cable will say, according to his office.
Tory lawmaker John Penrose rejected Cable’s assertion. “I think it says that we’re being democratic,” Penrose told BBC radio. “I think it’s no more or less destabilizing than, for example, Nick Clegg saying ‘we’re going to have a vote on this when the time is right, when there are powers due to be passed.’”