Conservative MPs will be ordered to vote in favour of a bill committing the next government to hold an in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, Downing Street confirmed today.
Eurosceptics were cheering the decision of Stockton South MP James Wharton's decision to adopt David Cameron's draft EU referendum bill after he won the ballot to be given the chance to introduce his own piece of legislation - a private members bill.
A spokesperson for the prime minister said Cameron was "very happy" that Wharton had chosen to introduce the legislation and that Tory MPs would be required to give it their "full support" when it comes to a vote. "He will ensure Conservative members give it their full backing by giving it a three-line-whip," the spokesperson said.
The strict order to vote in favour of the bill could present a challenge for europhile members of the Conservative Party, particularly cabinet minister Ken Clarke who yesterday said his colleagues should "move on" from Europe as leaving the EU would be a "catastrophe".
Yet despite the "full backing" of the prime minister it remains unlikely the bill would become law. Private members bills rarely make it onto the statute book and Nick Clegg has indicated he will not allow it to be given government time.
On Wednesday evening 114 Tory MPs, almost half the parliamentary party, voted to condemn the Queen's Speech for failing to include EU referendum legislation.
Wharton, the 29-year-old Stockton South MP who said he would leave the EU if there was a vote today, said it was "about time that this issue was tackled head-on" in parliament.
"I think that the prime minister has been very clear in saying that the Conservative Party position is that people should be given a say by the end of 2017, and parliament should be give an opportunity to legislate on that," he said.
"I hope that when it is brought before parliament, that other MPs from other parties will be able to support it and agree with me that, whatever you think about Europe and our relationship with Europe, the matter needs to be settled and people need to be given a choice."
However the Labour Party and Lib Dems have ridiculed the Conservative Party for focusing on the EU rather than the economy and jobs.
And earlier this week Wharton appeared to agree. He said that the public would wonder why the Tories were spending so much time discussing Europe “to the exclusion of so many other important things”.
Asked this morning by the BBC if he had been leant on by Conservative Party whips to introduce the bill he acknowledged he had been "encouraged" to do so.
The prime minister published the bill earlier this week in an, ultimately futile, attempt to quell the expected rebellion over the Queen's Speech.
The bill, if passed, would require an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 on the question "Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?"
Downing Street has insisted government legislation would have been introduced were there a Conservative majority government and that it is the Lib Dems who are blocking it from happening at this time.
Nick Clegg dismissed Cameron's position on the EU as "clear as mud" as the prime minister had not set out what a renegotiated settlement with Brussels would involve.
"You are either only going to get largely symbolic concessions from the other 26 member states or you are going to demand so much 'pick and choose' that they are going to say 'Hang on a minute, this is a club, everyone has got to abide by certain rules'," he said.
Eurosceptic Tory MP Douglas Carswell celebrated the news that Wharton had been chosen: "Look who topped the Private Members Ballot! Commons vote on EU Referendum will now happen. God must be a Eurosceptic!" he said.Suggest a correction