UK Politics

Lib Dem MPs set to avoid vote 'stunt' on EU referendum bill

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Media captionDanny Alexander: "This is a sort of a parliamentary stunt, so we're not going to be there"

Liberal Democrat MPs will not be in Parliament on Friday when the Conservative-backed bill on an EU referendum is debated by MPs.

Cabinet minister Danny Alexander told the BBC "we are not going to be there" for what he called "this sort of parliamentary stunt".

He also played down recent polls, saying "UKIP will come, UKIP will go".

The private members bill, from Tory MP James Wharton, paves the way for an in-out referendum on the EU in 2017.

Although it is a private member's bill, it has the full support of Downing Street, as it enshrines in law the Conservative leadership's promise to renegotiate UK membership of the EU and then hold a referendum if they win the next election.

It is having its second reading on 5 July - if Labour and Lib Dem opponents of the idea do not vote against it, the bill is likely to move on to the next stage of the parliamentary process.

But they are expected to oppose it at later stages.

'Wasting our influence'

Mr Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "We set out our position on this repeatedly in Parliament. I think this is a sort of parliamentary stunt.

"We are not going to be there. I will be in my constituency working hard for the people of the Highlands, as I do almost every Friday.

"I voted for the legislation this government brought forward, which for the first time will guarantee a referendum takes place whenever there is a further change in the European treaties that affect Britain.

"That bill guarantees a referendum will take place if there are future treaty changes. That's what we promised in our manifesto."

He criticised the private members bill for the "idea... that we should somehow be wasting our influence in Europe going after nation-specific repatriation".

Instead, he said, Britain should be "using our influence in Europe to build up the European economy, to support measures that will improve job creation and growth prospects across Europe - as we know from the Eurozone that's what's knocking our economy back so much."

When it was put to Mr Alexander that his argument was falling on deaf ears, he said: "I am quite confident in that argument.

"UKIP will come and UKIP will go but what matters is Britain stays a full member of the European Union, that we have a referendum as and when a major treaty change takes place but we don't try and conjure one up out of nothing for domestic political reasons."

Eurosceptic Mr Wharton topped a ballot of backbenchers in May which allows him to introduce his own legislation. Downing Street has said Conservative MPs will be under a three-line whip, the strongest order a party can give, to support it.

A source close to Labour leader Ed Miliband said earlier this month that his MPs would not take part in the vote on Friday, describing the bill as a "gimmick".

Shadow cabinet minister Chuka Umunna said Labour did not plan to get involved "in what is basically an internal debate to the Conservative Party".

Asked if Labour would include a commitment to an EU referendum in their election manifesto, Mr Umunna told Sky News' Dermot Murnaghan: "Do I think we should create huge uncertainty... putting jobs at risk? I do not believe that is the right thing and we are not committed to an in-out referendum.

"But if there's a proposal to transfer powers to Europe, we have said yes there should be."

The Conservatives say they want to let the British people "decide our European future" and accused Mr Miliband of being "too weak to give his MPs, let alone the public, a say".

The UK Independent Party says it is the only party which will pull the UK out of the European Union. They got 23% of the vote in the local election England in May, compared with 14% for the Lib Dems.

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