POLITICS
06/11/2013 03:43 GMT | Updated 06/11/2013 07:43 GMT

Adam Afriyie: David Cameron's 2017 EU Referendum Is 'Pie In The Sky'

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17:  Conservative MP Adam Afriyie arrives for the Ceremonial funeral of former British Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher at St Paul's Cathedral on April 17, 2013 in London, England. Dignitaries from around the world today join Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as the United Kingdom pays tribute to former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher during a Ceremonial funeral with military honours at St Paul's Cathedral. Lady Thatcher, who died last week, was the first British female Prime Minister and served from 1979 to 1990  (Photo by Chris Jackson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: Conservative MP Adam Afriyie arrives for the Ceremonial funeral of former British Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher at St Paul's Cathedral on April 17, 2013 in London, England. Dignitaries from around the world today join Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as the United Kingdom pays tribute to former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher during a Ceremonial funeral with military honours at St Paul's Cathedral. Lady Thatcher, who died last week, was the first British female Prime Minister and served from 1979 to 1990 (Photo by Chris Jackson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

"It’s not about me," Adam Afriyie insists. "It’s not about what MPs want. It’s about what the British public want. I knew it was going to be tough. I had to wrestle with my conscience on it." The Conservative MP for Windsor wants there to be a referendum on the European Union in 2014. And he intends to use a vote on Friday to make the point - even if he has to do it alone.

On Friday MPs will vote on the government backed EU Referendum Bill. The legislation is being piloted through the Commons by backbencher James Wharton. But it was conceived in Downing Street. David Cameron has said he needs time to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU before he then puts that new arrangement to a public vote after the next election - by 2017 at the latest. Not soon enough for Afriyie.

The Windsor MP has tabled an amendment to the Bill that, if adopted, would trigger the referendum just one year from now. There was a time when such an amendment would have attracted a significant level of support from his Tory colleagues. But over the last month over 100 backbenchers have written to him to tell him to drop the plan and one directed a "f***ing" atomic sized public rant at him in the Commons tea room.

"The whole Tory party is united behind giving people a say," Afriyie insists. "What we have here is a difference in timing. The reason 2014 is important is it is within this parliament. That is the only time we can guarantee to deliver something."

Speaking to The Huffington Post UK in his parliamentary office, Afriyie dismisses the prime minister's much heralded pledge to hold an in/out referendum after the 2015 next election as "pie in the sky".

The Wharton Bill, he predicts, has little chance of making it through the House of Lords given the majority of Labour and Lib Dem peers opposed to it. And even if it does survive their lordships, he worries that the Conservatives will not be in power after 2015 to make good on their promise.

"I really support Wharton Bill, as a second best option. But it's unlikely the Wharton Bill is going to make it. Even if it does, it’s unlikely there will be a referendum anyway.

"I hope the Conservatives win the election but obviously it's looking pretty tight with the electoral calculus. If we don’t have a referendum [before 2015] I think it's less likely the Conservatives will win the election."

On The Blog: Adam Afriyie: Last Chance to Get a Referendum Before 2017

He says under a post-2015 Labour or Lib Dem-Labour coalition government any referendum would be erased with "a strike of pen" or at the very least put off beyond 2020. "As soon as there is an election then all previous legislation can be amended."

"In this parliament, so far under this coalition, we have dealt with the Alternative Vote, with have dealt with House of Lords reform, we have dealt with the Scottish question. So it seems to me the elephant in the room is the relationship with the EU. We need to deal with it in this parliament where we know we can deal with it."

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David Cameron and James Wharton's Bill would trigger a referendum after 2015

But why, if Labour and Lib Dem Lords are unlikely to pass a Bill that put in place a referendum by 2017, would they back a Bill that triggers one in 2014? "If the amendment were to go through, it would be untenable, without a constitutional crisis, for the Lords to try and overrule the will of the Commons," he says.

"If, and it’s a big if, MPs have the confidence to vote through this amendment on Friday it would be an exceptionally willful House of Lords that thwarted the will of the House of Commons."

It is a very big "if". In October 140 backbench Tory MPs wrote to Afriyie to demand that he drop his amendment - amid fears it would wreck the Bill as it would not pass the Commons with 2014 date attached. But the embarrassment did not make him change his mind.

"That was an orchestrated letter and that’s fine," he says. "I get on very well with my colleagues. But the letter doesn’t say they aren’t going to support the amendment. It says 'please don’t table it'. Those are two very different things."

The suggestion appears to be that backbench Tory MPs would rather not have a vote against an almost immediate referendum on their record. But were one offered up, they may feel they have to support it.

"The amendment gives those MPs who do want a referendum before the election the opportunity vote in favour of the amendment and demonstrate to their constituents that Conservatives do want a referendum sooner rather than later," he says.

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Nicholas Soames was not that happy with Afriyie's amendment

A polite, if firm, letter from his party colleagues did not put him off. And neither did a rather more high-octane encounter with one of the party's grandees. The tension between Afriyie and other backbenchers exploded when Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill and MP for Mid-Sussex, confronted him in the Commons tea room. Soames is said to have angrily denounced the Windsor MP to his face as a "chateau bottled nuclear powered ****" who was a "f***ing disgrace" to the party for meddling with the Cameron backed Bill.

Afriyie laughs. "It's the rough and tumble of politics. I am determined to do what I can to give people a say on whether or not we are in the EU."

And the 48-year-old self-made technology multi-millionaire, who grew up in a council estate in South London, does not appear to be too worried about being shouted at an old-Etonian. "From where I come from, a few words here or there don’t really make much difference."

"What we are here for is to serve without fear of favour. If the majority of your constituents and the British population want something, one has to think very carefully about whether you want to deliver that."

In the same tirade, as reported by the Mail on Sunday, Soames also accused Afriyie of pursuing his referendum campaign as part of an "absurd f***ing campaign to become party leader". A charge he rejects with a scoff. "Just, no, whatsoever."

"What I am trying to do is give the people a say. I knew it was going to be tough. Ok? I knew it was going to be tough. I had to wrestle with my conscience on it. But the idea that out of 650 MPs not a single MP would put down an amendment to suggest the British people have a say in this parliament, which is what they want, would seem bizarre."

"But you know what. It’s not about me. It’s not about what MPs want. It’s about what the British public want. That's the voice I am trying to give, a voice to the British public."

With less than two years to go until the general election Conservative MPs are still deeply worried that Ukip may split the centre-right vote and deny the party a majority - letting Ed Miliband into No.10. He says while his goal is to "give British people a say" on membership, there are electoral advantages. "If we have had the referendum then perhaps the raison d'etre for other parties like Ukip no longer exists".

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Afriyie would vote to leave the EU if there were a referendum today. But suggests a quick public ballot would strengthen Cameron's hand in his negotiations with other EU leaders and convince the public to vote to remain in the union. "I could be persuaded," he says. But does not sound convinced by the renegotiation tactic. "How optimistic I am that those changes will be forth coming I don’t know."

How many of his colleagues will walk through the 'aye' lobby with him on Friday? "I don’t have a crystal ball. All I know is the majority of the British population want a referendum sooner rather than later and in this parliament. We are now engaged in constructive discussions with various individuals. I hope people will come round by Friday."

"I tabled this amendment because I believe it is the right thing to do for our country to resolve this issue and I hope as many MPs as possible will support it."