David Cameron: EU referendum bill shows only Tories listen
David Cameron has said only his party is offering a "clear choice" about the UK's future in Europe after the Tories published a draft bill outlining plans for a referendum by the end of 2017.
The prime minister said the Liberal Democrats and Labour were not willing to listen to the public on the issue.
Mr Cameron says he has shown leadership on the issue but critics say he is being dictated to by his backbenchers.
MPs will seek to force a vote on the issue of a referendum on Wednesday.
The Conservatives have published a bill aimed at reassuring the party's MPs that, if they win the next election, the party will fulfil the PM's commitment earlier this year to let the public have their say on the UK's future in Europe.
The bill states that voters would be asked the question "do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?" in a referendum to be held no later than 31 December 2017.
Many Tories were unhappy plans for an in-out EU referendum were not mentioned in the Queen's Speech - which lays out the government's plans for the next year.'Compelling choice'
But, speaking in the US - where he is on a three day-visit - Mr Cameron said this was not possible because his Lib Dem coalition partners opposed such a step.
Asked whether he had consulted his deputy Nick Clegg before publishing the bill, Mr Cameron said he had discussed the whole issue of the UK's future relationship with the EU "in quite a lot of detail".
"It is well known that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats do not agree about Europe," he said.
"We want a renegotiation, they don't, we want an in-out referendum, they don't.
The publishing of a draft bill looks like an exercise in what Mrs Thatcher used to call 'followership not leadership'. ”
"When the dust settles on this, what people will see is one party, the Conservative Party, offering this very clear, very compelling choice in the national interest, reforming the EU, changing the Britain's relationship with it and giving people the chance of an in-out referendum.
"And the other two main parties saying they don't want to listen to the views of the people on this issue. That is the truth of... what is actually under debate at the moment."
Some Conservative MPs have suggested the prime minister is pursuing the wrong strategy while one, Philip Hollobone, said No 10 had been "in chaos" over the issue in the past few days amid open divisions in the party about whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave.
Up to 100 Conservative MPs could support an amendment to the Queen's Speech on Wednesday, signalling their "regret" that legislation paving the way for a future referendum was not in the programme.
But their actions have been described as "lunatic" and "offensive" by veteran Conservative MP Nicholas Soames.
"This is the most fundamental and important decision this country will have to take for the next generation," he told BBC Radio 4's PM.
"It is isn't just about adding some silly little clause to the Queen's Speech - an entirely, in my view, improper thing to do in the first place."'Misconception'
The prime minister said it was a "complete misconception" to suggest the MPs were opposing the Queen's Speech as a whole by tabling the amendment, and repeated his position that he was "relaxed" about how backbenchers voted.
Ministers, including several who have said they would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held now, will be required to abstain although the amendment is unlikely to pass because Labour and the Lib Dems are set to vote against.
PRIVATE MEMBERS' BILLS
- MPs put names into a ballot
- Normally the first seven drawn are given a day's debate for their bill
- Most private members' bills - lacking government support - do not become law
- There have to be at least 100 MPs backing a bill to ensure it clears the first few hurdles
- But one with the backing of Tory ministers but not Lib Dems would be likely to fail to get a majority unless a decent chunk of Labour MPs back it
No 10 has dismissed any comparisons between Mr Cameron and former Prime Minister Sir John Major, whose government was damaged by ongoing rows about Europe during the 1990s.
Mr Cameron said he was the first party leader in "30, 40 years" to offer the public a choice on the UK's membership of the EU on the basis of a "reassessment" of what is in the country's national interest.
"The whole reason we are having this debate is because of the act of leadership I took to say it is time now for Britain to renegotiate our relationship, to seek change in Europe and seek a referendum for that change."
The draft legislation could be brought to the Commons for debate by one of the party's backbench MPs in the form of a private member's bill, rather than one sponsored by the government.
The ballot to choose who can bring forward private members' bills will be held on Thursday and, although they have little chance of becoming law, there is non-government parliamentary time open to them to be debated.'Navel-gazing'
Labour says committing to hold a referendum in four years' time is not the "right choice" for the country and internal Tory "machinations" are causing uncertainty at a time when securing economic recovery should be the government's priority.
End Quote Bernard Kouchner French foreign minister
It could be the worst solution to change Europe”
"Our agenda is reform and change within Europe, not exit from the European Union," said shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander.
The Lib Dems said the government had already legislated to seek public approval before any further powers were handed to Brussels, and accused their coalition partners of "navel-gazing" over Europe.
The UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage - who campaigns for a UK exit - described the proposed draft bill as "nothing more than gesture politics".
Former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner suggested Mr Cameron wanted to stay in the EU and the draft bill was "a political manoeuvre" in response to UKIP's success in recent elections.
He acknowledged Brussels was being held responsible for Europe's economic ills and was extremely unpopular in France itself, but urged countries not "to throw the baby out with the bathwater".
"Don't play with the referendum," he told Radio 4's World Tonight. "It could be the worst solution to change Europe. We have to convince the people. We need Europe."