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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