POLITICS

Cameron Wins Vote On European Referendum

24/10/2011 13:57 BST | Updated 24/12/2011 10:12 GMT

Prime Minister David Cameron has comfortably seen off calls by backbench MPs for a referendum on the UK's future in Europe, but the debate in the House of Commons has laid bare a deep and lingering resentment by many in his own party.  

The motion calling for a national vote on Europe was rejected by 483 to 111, but 79 Tory MPs defied the will of the government in a blow to the prime minister's authority. A further four acted as tellers or abstained, in the party's biggest ever revolt on the issue.

Two junior members of the government, Adam Holloway and Stewart Jackson, voted in support of the referendum and have either resigned or been sacked. 

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Michael Gove said the defeat was "not a humiliation" - but deputy prime minister Nick Clegg risked further inflaming coalition tensions over Europe, saying a repatriation of powers from Europe was "not going to happen".

"You don’t change Europe by launching some smash-and-grab dawn raid on Brussels", he told journalists.

However Cameron defended taking on the rebels within his party, saying on Tuesday morning: “in politics you have to confront the big issues rather than try and sweep them under the carpet”.

During a six-hour debate in the Commons, dozens of Tories stood up to complain bitterly that the government's approach on an EU referendum was out of touch with the majority of the British people. Ministers were accused of undermining democracy by refusing to allow MPs a free vote on what had been a backbench motion. But some of the most scathing criticism from Tories was saved for the Liberal Democrats, who were accused of U-turning on their manifesto pledge to hold an EU referendum. Like Labour and the Tories, the Lib Dems had whipped their MPs into opposing the referendum motion. 

Earlier David Cameron had set out why he believed there was no justification for a referendum, telling MPs that proposing one while the crisis within the Eurozone was ongoing would ultimately damage the sluggish British economy.  

"When your neighbour's house is on fire, your first impulse should be to help put out the flames," he told MPs, saying that it was in Britain's national interest to remain in the EU because it was the destination for most of Britain's exports.

But a senior backbench Tory and chairman of the 1922 committee, Mark Pritchard, argued that most people in Britain have never had a say on Europe, and the last referendum on it - in the 1970s - was only on the European Common Market and not the much more integrated union which exists today.

Pritchard told MPs that millions of people in Britain had become a lost generation of alienated voters who needed to be re-enfranchised, and argued that allowing a referendum on Europe would help re-engage people in the UK's future.  

Two polls published on Monday revealed that, when asked, most people said they wanted a referendum on EU membership.

A ComRes/ITV poll said that more than two thirds of the public (68 per cent) supported the idea of a referendum. Just 16 per cent said they did not, and 16 per cent did not know. The poll found that fewer than a quarter (23 per cent) thought that membership of the EU had delivered more benefits than disadvantages.

The poll did however show that only a third (37 per cent) of people wanted a full withdrawal from the EU, while the same number did not want to leave.

A separate poll by The Guardian and ICM showed that 49 per cent of people would vote to withdraw from the EU, while 70 per cent wanted a referendum. The poll also showed that a majority of Tory voters wanted to leave the EU, while a majority of Labour and Lib Dem voters wanted to stay in.

Stewart Jackson fully expected to be sacked as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Northern Ireland office, but in his speech he made a stinging attack on the foreign secretary, William Hague.  

"The Foreign Secretary once described the EU as a 'burning building with no exits'," he said, "But now the foreign secretary is putting mortice locks on the windows and the doors.

"It will not do any longer. The people's voice will be heard."

Tory MP Anne Main was one of several to attack her Lib Dem coalition colleagues, accusing them of kicking their pledge to hold a referendum on the EU because it had become politically difficult. 

Eurosceptic Tory MP Bernard Jenkin warned that MPs were about to vote in a way that flew in the face of the wishes of those who'd elected them.  ""What is sad for this House, on an occasion when we could be reflecting the genuine concern of our voters...we are going to vote perhaps 4-to-1 against what our constituents would prefer to see," he said.

There were rebels on the Labour benches as well, many with a heavy heart but angry over Ed Miliband's decision to whip his own backbenchers into defeating the motion.  Stephen McCabe told the Commons:  "I will find myself in the division lobby with some strange bedfellows, some people I think are frankly mad."

Labour leader Ed Miliband said it was a "humiliation" for the prime minister: ”If he can't win the argument with his own backbenchers, how can the country have confidence that he can win the arguments that matter for Britain?"