EU Referendum Bill: Tories 'prepared to go the distance', says MP

A 2014 referendum would be too soon, Europe minister David Lidington said

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Conservative MPs are "prepared to go the distance, however many rounds it takes", to legislate for an in/out referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, MP James Wharton has said.

Mr Wharton's bill, which proposes a 2017 referendum, enjoys the support of his party leadership.

Mr Wharton accused "anti-democratic forces" of standing in its way as Labour MPs deployed delaying tactics.

The debate was adjourned until next week.

MPs will then consider further amendments on the conduct of the referendum.

The Bill is likely to receive a Third Reading next Friday. If it clears the Commons it will go before peers for further scrutiny in the House of Lords.

One Labour backbencher, Mike Gapes, has tabled more than 50 amendments to the legislation, 18 of which attempt to change, or place constraints on, the date of the proposed referendum.

'Great obsession'

BBC Parliamentary Correspondent Mark Darcy said Mr Gapes and his allies have been engaging in "time-wasting with a tactical objective", which could leave the bill "in trouble, marooned in the Lords, with no way to get to the statute book".

The general expectation in Westminster is that the Bill will clear the Commons next Friday, after which it heads off to the Lords.

It's already clear it will not be debated before Christmas (the Lords authorities have not yet announced the Friday sittings, next year, to consider private members bills) and the best guess is a Second Reading debate will finally be held late in January.

At that point a deadline begins to loom.

The Lords is a much more europhile body than the Commons (even on its Conservative benches) and could certainly amend the Bill.

A group of peers around the Lib Dem veteran Lord Roper are said to be cooking up all kinds of cunning plans….

If the bill is amended, the last day set down for private members business in the Commons, when any amendments could be considered is 28 February 2014.

After that, the Bill's in trouble, marooned in the Lords, with no way to get to the statute book.

There are precedents for governments giving a helping hand to private members bills by allowing them to be debated in government time.

But this government is a coalition and one part of it, the Lib Dems, doesn't like this bill one little bit. They're unlikely to agree to give it extra time.

So what next?

There's always the Parliament Act.

If the bill clears the Commons it is likely to face strong opposition from Europhile peers in the upper chamber, which would be unlikely to find time to debate it before late January, according to our correspondent.

In a statement issued by Conservative central office, Mr Wharton said: "The Conservatives are fighting to give the British people a say on Europe.

"Lined-up against us are anti-democratic forces within Labour and the Liberal Democrats doing everything in their power to stall and block this bill.

"As usual, they don't trust the British public enough to give them a say, but we are prepared to go the distance, however many rounds it takes, to get the bill through and to let Britain decide."

Mr Gapes told MPs that his proposals were not "frivolous", and warned them that he would push some of them to a vote. "These are serious amendments," he said.

Shadow Foreign Office minister Gareth Thomas said: "The prime minister and many in the Conservative Party are very obviously on different pages with regards to Europe."

Describing the Conservatives' approach to the EU as a "great obsession", he claimed that David Cameron had been "bullied" by his backbenchers into setting the "entirely arbitrary" 2017 referendum date.

Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood added: "The prime minister has an interest in creating paper unity in the Conservative Party over the question of a referendum, but it would of course be a political disaster for the Conservative Party if they actually got the referendum, because then they would be split absolutely down the middle."

MPs overwhelmingly rejected a bid by Conservative MP Adam Afriyie to hold a referendum before the next election by 249 votes to 15, a majority of 234.

Among the 14 Conservatives backing the amendment were prominent Eurosceptic backbenchers Douglas Carswell, Nadine Dorries and Andrew Rosindell.

Mr Wharton said: "Adam's amendment would have meant the chances of this important bill passing would be diminished and I am pleased so many MPs voted with their good sense to ensure we do everything we can to let Britain decide."

"I Support a Referendum" Campaign event A number of Conservative MPs back the "I Support a Referendum" campaign

But UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall said: "I am happy to congratulate those 15 MPs who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

"They are clearly politicians of principle while meanwhile it appears many Conservatives just want to use the issue as a means of getting re-elected."

David Cameron argues that holding a referendum in 2017 will give him enough time for a full renegotiation of the UK's relationship with Brussels before the public is offered a say on whether to leave or remain in the EU.

Pressed by Labour on which powers the Conservatives would seek to repatriate, Europe minister David Lidington responded: "The honourable gentleman may believe that it would be the right approach for a government to spell out in 2013 precisely what terms ministers in a future Conservative government would hope to put to the EU after 2015 general election.

"All I can say to him is if that is the sort of naïve approach to negotiation that he endorses now then that would indicate why his party so signally failed to achieve much while they were in office."

Mr Wharton tabled his European Union (Referendum) Bill in an attempt to enshrine his party leadership's referendum pledge in law.

It lacks the support of the Liberal Democrats, and, as a private member's bill, is vulnerable to being delayed by procedural tactics from MPs who oppose it.

The bill will only become law if the government allocates enough parliamentary time for its advocates in the Commons to overcome any such hurdles.

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