LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron has suffered a fresh blow to his authority, with around a third of his own party’s lawmakers voting against his delay on offering a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership.
The lower house of Parliament on Wednesday rejected a motion introduced by ministers of Parliament from Cameron’s Conservative Party expressing regret that the coalition government’s plans for the year contain no guarantee of a referendum.
But Cameron’s attempts to end growing Euroskeptic dissent in Conservative ranks appeared to have failed, because the figure of 130 legislators who voted for the nonbinding motion was far higher than expected.
It included around 114 Conservatives, more than one-third of the party’s 305 lawmakers in the House of Commons.
Cameron’s coalition partners, the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, and the opposition Labour Party both mainly voted against the motion.
Leading Tory rebel Peter Bone vowed to carry on pushing for legislation committing to a referendum. “We’re not going to walk away,” he said.
Bone claimed that the vote could have been won with Cameron’s support and urged the prime minister to introduce legislation despite opposition from the Lib Dems.
“To a certain extent, the prime minister was encouraging us to vote for the amendment, because after all, it’s his own policy,” he told BBC News.
Foreign Secretary William Hague played down talk of a rebellion.
“Conservative MPs were able to vote for it or they were able to abstain, entirely their choice,” he told Sky News. “I think the whole party, of course, would like to be able to proceed with legislation on this subject. We can’t because we are in a coalition.”
Cameron, who missed the vote because he is visiting the United States, had insisted he was “profoundly relaxed” about it and gave his lawmakers a free vote, although ministers were expected to toe the line. But a day before the vote, he tried to quell the rebellious mood in his party by publishing a draft bill revealing the wording of a referendum to be held by the end of 2017.
The Conservative rift is bad news for the party two years before a general election, and a reminder of how the issue of Europe led to the downfall of late former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and undermined her successor, John Major, in the 1990s.
The parliamentary motion proposed by the rebels expressed “regret” that legislation promising a referendum was not included in last week’s Queen’s Speech, in which the government set out its program for the year.
Cameron argues that he wants to renegotiate the conditions of Britain’s membership of the EU and then, if he is returned to power in the 2015 general election, put the question to the people in a referendum by the end of 2017.
But the Tory Euroskeptics are flexing their muscles by demanding that he enact legislation before the next election. Many fear they will lose ground to the anti-EU and anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, which enjoyed its best ever performance at recent local authority elections.
Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg earlier accused the Conservatives of “shifting the goalposts” in the row over the EU.
A Guardian/ICM poll published this week found 35 percent of Britons favor an immediate referendum. Some 43 percent said they would vote to leave the EU and 40 percent said they wanted to stay in.