LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron is bracing for a fresh Conservative rebellion over Europe this week as about 100 of his party’s lawmakers look set to defy him in a parliamentary vote.
Tory divisions over Britain’s membership in the European Union, never far below the surface, have burst into the open once again ahead of the expected vote Wednesday.
Euroskeptic Member of Parliament John Baron has introduced a nonbinding motion expressing “regret” that last week’s Queen’s Speech, which set out the government’s priorities for the year, did not include a promise to legislate for a referendum on EU membership.
Cameron has promised to hold an in-out referendum if his party wins a majority in the next general election in 2015. Currently, the Tories share power with the smaller pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
The rise of the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), which came third in local elections this month, has prompted many Conservatives to press Cameron to enshrine his pledge in law.
Media reports suggest 100 lawmakers are likely to support Baron’s motion — a third of the parliamentary Tory party and an increase from the 81 Tory lawmakers who demanded a referendum in a 2011 vote.
Cameron’s office has said he is “relaxed” about this week’s vote, but it emerged over the weekend that his ministers have been told to abstain.
It would be unprecedented for them to vote against their own government’s Queen’s Speech, but many Tories in the Cabinet are sympathetic to the rebels’ cause.
Amid front-page newspaper headlines proclaiming “Tory civil war” and “Tories in Europe turmoil,” senior Conservative ministers took to the airwaves Sunday to try to calm the storm.
“You can’t have a civil war when everyone is on the same side,” said Education Secretary Michael Gove.
He said the “overwhelming majority” of Tory lawmakers wanted a different relationship with Brussels, and admitted that he personally believes leaving the EU would be “perfectly tolerable.”
“I’m not happy with our position with the European Union. But my preference is for a change in Britain’s relationship,” he said.
Gove insisted Cameron’s promise to renegotiate Britain’s terms before putting them to a vote in 2017 is the right approach.
However, Baron wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that the prime minister’s pledge “is not yet believable.”
He said legislating for a referendum “would put this right” and vowed in the coming weeks to seek “every means possible to bring legislation to Parliament.”
Home Secretary Theresa May and Defense Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed they will abstain in the vote as they seek to defend the prime minister’s leadership.
May said she had “every sympathy” with the rebels but added: “I don’t think it’s right for ministers to effectively vote against the program we put forward in the Queen’s Speech.”
Hammond was asked if he shouldn’t therefore vote against Baron’s motion, and for the Queen’s Speech.
“I wouldn’t want to vote against it and allow that to be misinterpreted as in any way questioning our commitment to, our belief in, the idea of a referendum,” he said.
However, he later added that he would vote to leave the bloc if a referendum were held tomorrow.
“If the choice is between a European Union written exactly as it is today and not being a part of that, then I have to say that I’m on the side of the argument that Michael Gove has put forward,” Hammond told BBC Radio5live.
But prominent Tory Euroskeptic Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, warned an EU exit was not a silver bullet for Britain’s economic woes.
“If we left the EU, we would end this sterile debate, and we would have to recognize that most of our problems are not caused by ‘Bwussels,’ but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and underinvestment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure,” Johnson wrote in Monday’s Daily Telegraph.
Cameron’s pledge earlier this year to hold an in-out vote on EU membership was intended to appease the Euroskeptics in his party and undermine the appeal of UKIP.
But the debate has only grown, with several senior Tories now openly calling for Britain to leave the EU.
Cameron says he supports membership and will vote “yes” in any referendum, but believes the 27-nation bloc needs to change.
However, opinion polls suggest many British people do not agree with him — a YouGov survey this week found 46 percent would vote to leave the EU, compared with 35 percent who would vote to stay.