UK Politics

EU referendum bill: Tories accuse Lib Dems of 'killing off' bill

Conservative MP Bob Neill calling for an EU referendum in the House of Commons
Image caption The Conservatives and Lib Dems have traded insults over Bob Neill's bill

The Conservatives have accused their Lib Dem coalition partners of "killing off" attempts to pass a law before the election enshrining an EU referendum.

A proposed bill tabled by Tory MP Bob Neill cleared its first Commons hurdle last week but a fierce row has erupted between the parties over its future.

Mr Neill said the Lib Dems had used "Westminster tricks" to thwart it.

But senior Lib Dems said the Tories had effectively sacrificed the bill by attaching "ridiculous conditions".

David Cameron has promised an in-out referendum on the UK's membership of the EU by 2017 if he is in power after the election, to be preceded by a renegotiation with the EU's 27 other members.

Labour and the Lib Dems oppose a referendum on those terms while UKIP has called for a public vote to be brought forward to 2016.

A previous attempt by the Conservatives to legislate for an EU referendum in 2017 was backed by MPs earlier this year, but it was abandoned when it was effectively blocked in the House of Lords.

'Unfair deal'

The Conservatives and Lib Dems are reported to have been in talks in recent days about the amount of parliamentary time to be allocated to Mr Neill's bill and a separate private member's bill tabled by Lib Dem Andrew George which calls for housing benefit changes to be revised.

Since Mr George came top of an annual ballot enabling backbenchers to propose new legislation, his bill has priority in the parliamentary schedule in the limited time available before May's election.

The Lib Dems said the Conservatives were calling for the EU referendum bill to be debated in parliamentary time normally reserved for government business in return for agreeing a so-called "money resolution" to allow Mr George's bill to proceed to detailed scrutiny at committee stage.

Lib Dem deputy leader Malcolm Bruce said: "The Liberal Democrats were never going to block their referendum bill. We were happy to allow them to try and get it passed in the House of Commons.

"But the truth is they have folded like a cheap deck chair and are trying to make us take the blame by adding ridiculous conditions they knew we would not and could not accept."

The Daily Telegraph reported that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had insisted on a review of cuts to housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have spare rooms - dubbed by critics as the "bedroom tax" - as a condition of his party allowing the referendum bill to proceed.

Immigration

Mr Neill said the Lib Dems had done "everything they could" to prevent a referendum and would be held to account by voters at the forthcoming general election.

"The Lib Dems have killed off our chances of putting into law, this side of an election, an in out EU referendum by 2017," he said.

"They didn't have the guts to vote against an EU referendum in the House of Commons. Instead they have used Westminster tricks to try to deny the British people a say on their membership of the EU."

In a separate development, Conservative business minister Nick Boles has appeared to suggest the UK does not have full control over its immigration policy and may never be able to stem the free movement of labour within the European Union.

Mr Boles, regarded as a leading Tory moderniser, said those who thought British society and business benefited from a "reasonable level of immigration" could win the argument but only if the public were reassured that Parliament was "in control" of immigration levels.

"The difficulty that has arisen is this sense that we don't have that control - and, bluntly, they're right," he told Total Politics magazine.

He added: "We may never be able to control it (EU migration) entirely because it's a fundamental principle of the EU.

"But it will be very hard for the British people to accept that, for as long as Britain remains the most dynamic economy in the EU, we're going to be the net recipient of a very large amount of immigration every year."

Mr Boles later told the BBC the prime minister was right to put control of EU immigration at the centre of his renegotiation plan and he was confident Mr Cameron would "do just that".

More on this story