UK Politics

EU referendum vote build-up 'badly handled'

George Eustice
Image caption George Eustice was Mr Cameron's press secretary for three years

David Cameron's former press secretary George Eustice, now a Tory MP, has accused the government of handling the build-up to Monday's Commons debate on an EU referendum "very, very badly".

The Conservatives, the Lib Dems and Labour will all ask their MPs to oppose the motion calling for a referendum to be held on UK membership of the EU.

But Mr Eustice, who has tabled an amendment, says he may rebel.

More than 85 of his fellow Tory MPs could also rebel, it is understood.

The government would not be bound by the result of the vote, based on a motion by Tory MP David Nuttall, but it could prove politically tricky for the Conservative leadership.

Conservative MPs are expected to face a three-line whip - not yet confirmed - which would require any in government jobs to follow the party line and vote against the motion or to resign their posts.

'Difficult position'

One MP, Stewart Jackson, has already said he intends to vote for the motion even if it costs him his job as a parliamentary private secretary, saying: "Some things are more important than party preferment."

Mr Nuttall's motion calls for a referendum by May 2013 and says the public should have three options put to them in the nationwide vote - keeping the status quo, leaving the EU or reforming the terms of the UK's membership of the European Union.

Mr Eustice is calling on colleagues to back his amendment which would delay a referendum until the UK had renegotiated its position in the EU.

In what is being seen as an attempt to broker a compromise, he is urging the government to return certain powers from the EU to Westminster before putting the issue to the public.

Speaking to BBC Radio Cornwall, he said: "The truth is most frontbenchers agree with the backbenchers, they are being put in an incredibly difficult position by the government.

"I think the government has handled it very, very badly and have escalated this into a conflict that was entirely unnecessary."

He said if the government did not support his amendment, he was "minded" to support the motion.

"It is not perfect... but I would find it difficult to support the government on this given the way it has been handled," he added.

Secretary of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee Mark Pritchard - who has said he is willing to defy a three-line whip if necessary - said from discussions held, he believed the number of Tory rebels could exceed 85 if the amendments were not selected.

"The government should think again and allow a one-line whip," he said.

However, the prime minister's spokesman has indicated the government will not back Mr Eustice's amendment, nor a second one tabled by fellow Conservative, Richard Harrington.

He said neither were "in line with government policy".

In the coalition agreement, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, a traditionally pro-European party, agreed to "ensure that the British government is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners".

On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it was the worst time for a debate about Britain leaving the EU as a "firestorm" engulfs the eurozone.

"This, it seems to me, would be the worst time to have some sort of arcane, institutional debate about what might happen in the European Union in many, many years to come.

"We have a firestorm to deal with right now, that's what we should be focusing on, not spending our time focusing on debates which I think many, many families will think looks a bit academic."

Labour leader Ed Miliband has said the prospect of a referendum would create further "economic uncertainty" and urged David Cameron to "show leadership" rather than make concessions to his backbenchers.

"It (a referendum) is not the right thing for Britain," he said. "It is not the right thing for jobs. It is not the right thing for growth."

Mr Miliband's stance has been criticised by Labour MP Graham Stringer who said backbenchers should be free to vote in any way as the debate had been organised by the Commons backbench business committee rather than the government or the opposition leadership.

Mr Stringer, who says he will vote for the motion, accused all three party leaders of making a "mistake" at a time when the public were "clearly aching for a say on Europe".

And the UK Independence Party, which campaigns for the UK to leave the EU, said the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem leaders were "out of step" with the British public and were setting their MPs on "a collision course with the electorate".

The debate was brought forward by three days to allow Mr Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague to attend. They were both due to miss the original date on 27 October because of a trip to Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

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