POLITICS

David Cameron's EU Referendum Bill Question Published Amid Backbench Unrest

14/05/2013 16:55 BST | Updated 14/05/2013 17:05 BST
AP

A draft bill published by the Conservative Party today provides for a referendum by 2017 on the question: "Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?"

The bill is not an official piece of government legislation as the Liberal Democrats are opposed to holding an in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.

Instead David Cameron will offer the bill to a backbench Tory MP to introduce as a Private Members Bill in the Commons.

The prime minister announced he would publish the draft piece of legislation late on Monday evening, as eurosceptic Tory MPs planned an almost unprecedented vote condemning the government's Queen's Speech for failing to include a promise to hold a referendum before 2017.

Some Tory MPs, including leading eurosceptic Douglas Carswell have been satisfied. "Thanks, prime minister. On matters European in this Parliament, that'll do me," he said.

However others, including John Baron, the ringleader of the move to vote for an amendment condemning his own government's legislative programme have dismissed the last minute concession as "second best".

The speed at which Cameron, who is currently on a tour of the United States, moved to quell backbench unrest was also criticised as "undignified" by Conservative Philip Hollobone. He told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme on Tuesday: "There is some chaos in No.10 this week."

READ THE BILL: Draft European Union (Referendum) Bill

However the prime minister told ITV News the timing of the bill's publication was not related to the impending vote on the Queen's Speech.

"Obviously, publishing a bill, which we can show to the British people, we can show to parliament and campaign for, is a very sensible way of adding strength to the pledge that I have made...I have intended to publish this Bill all along," he said.

"People need to know this is a serious pledge that they can bank. So seeing a bill, a bill that will put in place that referendum is part of adding to the strength of this pledge."

The Conservative Party's internal debate about the EU has echos of the battles of the 1990s which sharply divided John Major's government. Sheila Gunn, who served as Major's press secretary, told The Huffington Post UK the obsession with Europe was "depressing" in its familiarity. "You could also say now that the Conservative Party is handing the election to the Labour Party," she said.

MPs put their names forward into the ballot to be given a chance of introducing a Private Members Bill today - the names of those that are successful will be revealed on Thursday. Any Tory MP who comes near the top o the ballot will come under pressure from colleagues to adopt Cameron's draft EU referendum bill and introduce it in the Commons.

But Ken Clarke has pleaded with Tory MPs to "move on" from the debate over the Europe. The europhile Conservative cabinet minister said the focus should instead be the result of the referendum and that leaving the EU would be a "catastrophe".

"David Cameron has already committed the Conservative Party to holding a referendum on Europe in the next Parliament; this is obviously an attempt to underline that commitment to a referendum if he gets the chance," Clarke said.

"I think we should move on now. The important thing is to make sure we get the right result from any referendum which is held to avoid the catastrophe for the country's economy and our political standing in the world if we were to be so very, very reckless as to leave the European Union."