EU referendum: MPs call for public to have their say


James Wharton: "This has got the full backing of David Cameron and the Conservative Party leadership"

Conservative MPs have led calls for the public to have their say in a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union.

James Wharton, whose bill proposes a vote by 2017, said he was "speaking for millions of people" in the country.

He said "public sentiment" about Europe had changed and fresh consent for the UK's membership was "long overdue".

Labour said the Tories were "talking to themselves" while the Lib Dems branded the bill a "complete stunt".

MPs backed Mr Wharton's private member's bill at second reading - the first time it has been debated - by 304 votes to 0 although only a handful of Labour MPs took part as they and the Lib Dems boycotted the vote en masse.

'One step closer'

After the unanimous vote, Mr Cameron - who was in the Commons chamber for much of the debate - wrote on Twitter: "Referendum Bill passes first Commons stage, bringing us one step closer to giving the British people a say on Europe."

Although it has passed its first parliamentary hurdle, the bill will face much stronger opposition later and its passage through Parliament is far from guaranteed.

Douglas Alexander: "We do not believe that an in/out referendum in 2017... is in the national interest"

Only five Conservative MPs - Ken Clarke, Sir Richard Shepherd, Jason McCartney, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Gary Streeter - did not vote.

Veteran europhile Mr Clarke and eurosceptic Mr McCartney are away from Westminster for family reasons while Mr Streeter did not take part as he is chairing the committee which will now scrutinise the bill in detail.

Sir Richard spoke during the debate in favour of a referendum while Sir Malcolm said he would have backed it but choose to focus on other important parliamentary work as it was "obvious" that it would pass with a big majority.

Six Labour MPs - Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Dennis Skinner, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart - joined Conservatives in the yes lobby calling for a referendum.

Opening the debate, Mr Wharton - MP for Stockton South - said "power should reside with the people" and that his bill would give the public a "real choice" on the UK's future in Europe within a "sensible timeframe".

"We should trust the British public to have their say," he told MPs, adding that recent public votes on the electoral system and devolution for Scotland, Wales showed "we live in the age of the referendum".

"We have had so many referendums on so many things," he said. "It would seem to be farcical to deny a say on such an important thing which matters to so many people."

'Different creature'

Backing Mr Wharton's call, Conservative backbencher Andrew Tyrie said the EU was a "fundamentally different creature" than it was nearly 40 years ago when the public endorsed entry in a referendum.

For the government, William Hague called on "everyone who is a true democrat to unite behind this bill", saying it was "the best chance currently available" for a referendum and to give people "the decisive say which is their right".

There had been four major EU treaties in the past 25 years which had not been subject to a referendum in the UK, the foreign secretary told MPs, and "no institution can survive without the people's support".

He added: "It is the right bill at the right time to give the British people their democratic say on the country's future."

But Mr Alexander said the referendum was predicated on an "arbitrary date" and an "unrealistic and uncertain negotiating strategy" and claimed the issue had become an obsession for the Conservatives.

"Three years in, this is a party still banging on about Europe, a party talking to itself and not the country."

Uncertain passage

The prime minister's promise of a referendum by the end of 2017, following a renegotiation of the UK's relationship with Brussels, cannot be made law in the form of a government bill because of Lib Dem opposition.

Mr Wharton - the youngest Conservative in the Commons - agreed to propose the legislation after he came top in a ballot of MPs and after Tory MPs pushed for the referendum commitment to be made binding before the 2015 election.

Private members bills traditionally have little chance of becoming law unless they are backed by the government and the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson said the legislation could easily be derailed by its opponents in the Commons and the Lords.

But the Conservatives believed they were making a "powerful political point", he added.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who did not take part in the debate, told the BBC it was a "complete stunt" and the government had already passed legislation to guarantee a referendum in the event of further powers being handed to Brussels.

He told Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show that the time for a referendum was when the "rules of the game" changed and when "new things were asked of the UK" in terms of its relationship with the EU.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said a "passionate" referendum campaign would "wake up" the country.

"I want friendship, co-operation and trade (with the EU). I don't want to be part of a political union," he told the BBC. "I don't find it acceptable that 75% of our laws are now made by the institutions of Brussels."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Ready to eat humble pie?
    You cannot be in the EU if you are not a signatory to the ECHR

    but you can be in the ECHR & not the EU, the ECHR (council of Europe) has 47 members including Russia Norway & Switzerland,the EU has 28 members & leaving the EU would not remove the UK from the ECHR jurisdiction

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Even though i'm a European Federalist i do believe we should have a referendum. For a simple reason, if there is going to be a United States of Europe, i want no part of it, if it will not respect the wishes of the people of member states.

    I just hope we can have respectful, reasoned debates on either side.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    I wish Labour would stop playing silly games, and allow the people a voice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    The understanding is that the UK economy may suddenly collapse under Osbourne failed attempts to sell towels for revenue

    The real fear is If we are not in the EU the governments fear is that we could not secure a bail out and MP's 30 % rise would then have to be linked to disability allowance instead...glory be!

    Now you know why the procrastination has taken place

  • Comment number 173.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    @158: It's OK - should The People vote to exit the EU, they will just hold another referendum until the people vote to stay in, rather like they did with Ireland and the Euro.

    Democracy in Europe doesn't exist. This vote is a scam like the rest of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    169.Calum McKay
    2 Minutes ago
    Immaterial for Scotland, we will be free by 2014!


    Yep, out of Europe, out of the pound.

    Has King Alex told you what he intends you all to use as currency yet?

    The 'Silver Salmond' perhaps?

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Bring it on, we can build that wall higher and won't have to pander to you any more.

  • Comment number 169.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    63 Jack

    "Amazing as it my seem other people are voting at the same time as you"

    Which doesn't lead to much accuracy. A better system would be if the plus and minus arrows were recording separately rather than one cancelling out the other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    "Six Labour MPs - Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Dennis Skinner, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart - joined Conservatives in the yes lobby calling for a referendum"

    Maybe UKIP should not oppose them at the General Election

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    This will prove problematic for "Project Fear" in the Scottish referendum as they'll have to re-write all the scary stuff about Scotland being thrown out of the EU at whilst finding positive spin on the idea of England removing the UK from an EU the Scots want to stay in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    This will prove a significant ace card for the Torys in 2015. LibLabs love the EU so no show from them.

    I still see the UK and EU being in poor shape come the GE with UK doing much better than EU.

    EU's Leopard spots have not changed in the slightest at Brussels since 2008.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    156. postingdude -Swivel eyed loons?, Those who want to stop the Scots or the English citizens having their say on their future are the same people who wanted to stop the poor having the vote (they simply wont understand). Such arrogance, what gives you yet alone the political elite who rule us call people swivel eyed loons yet alone deny us the right to vote on the issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Why do we have to wait till 2017, that is another 4 years! This referendum should be taking place before the end of 2013, why is there a delay? Let us get this over and done with and as Mr. Wharton says there are millions of us in the UK who wish to have a vote, then our MPs who supposed to represent us should ACT NOW!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    140. Prophaniti
    120. SpacedOne
    96. Nasara

    Wait wait. Are we talking ECHR? Or ECtHR? Or even CoE?

    Spaced one is right the above are separate from the EU. The above were established before the EU.

    Prophaniti - membership to the EU requires satisfaction of the Copenhagen Criteria, which don't specifically force member states to join the CoE.

    It just so happens they were all already members...

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Power should always lie in the hands of the people (at least when we think they'll vote how we want them to)

    The EU may not be perfect but it has such potential for good and has done so much already that it would be pure sophistry to abandon ship at the first sight of choppy waters. (It is the EU that stood up to the US over spying and china over trade, and fights for the environment and rights

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Interesting to read many people questioning the intellectual credentials of the public to make the decision to leave - now, let me guess which side of the argument you are on...

    Presumably you didn't think they were too stupid to make the decision to join the COMMON MARKET all those years ago? Talk about patronising!

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    149.Rob jones
    The EU is neo-liberal construct, free market, economic liberalisation & local services tendered to the highest bidder, most EU rules are concearned with bringing the free market into public services = the opposite of the socialist ideals.
    socialism is not a name for anything you happen not to like

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    The only reason the tories want this referendum is because they are scared of UKIP, taking seats from them at the next election. What worries me, is that many will vote without knowing the facts fore and against staying in or coming out. Im sure there are many who will vote to come out, because they just dont want to be in it, without knowing if its good or bad for the UK. Tory electioneering


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