UK Politics

EU referendum: Tory MP will take forward bill

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionJames Wharton explains taking on the EU bill a day after warning against too much talk about Europe

A bill paving the way for a referendum on the UK's EU membership will be introduced by a Conservative MP.

Eurosceptic James Wharton topped a ballot of backbenchers which allows him to introduce his own legislation.

He will have full Tory support to bring forward a bill outlining the terms of a referendum to be held by 2017.

Private member's bills face a struggle to become law and the Conservative EU bill is likely to be opposed by the Lib Dems and Labour.

But Downing Street said Mr Cameron was "very pleased" and would ensure the bill was given "the full support of the Conservative Party". Conservative MPs will be under a three-line whip, the strongest order a party can give, to support the measure.

Mr Wharton's bill will receive its first reading in the House of Commons on 19 June when it is presented with the other bills in Thursday's ballot. The earliest date he can request a debate on the floor of the House is 5 July.

'Self indulgent'

Chancellor George Osborne said he and Mr Cameron would make sure Conservative MPs got behind the bill, adding: "We are going to try to persuade rebel MPs from other parties to back us. And look, when the dust settles people can see that the Conservative Party wants to give the British people an 'in-out' choice on our membership in Europe."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionVince Cable, Business Secretary: "It's doing the country serious damage... because of the uncertainty all of this is creating"

But his Lib Dem cabinet colleague, Business Secretary Vince Cable, hit out at the "self-indulgent" row about Europe which, he said, was already doing "serious damage" to the UK by putting off potential investors and was "getting in the way of government".

"This is not about having a democratic debate... it is about allowing Conservative backbenchers to continue this endless civil war that they have had in their party for 20 years."

The draw to select 20 MPs who can bring in their own bills guarantees decent parliamentary time for the first few.

Stockton South MP Mr Wharton came top. He told the BBC: "It's about time the people had a say and this issue was dealt with properly."

He admitted the parliamentary arithmetic was "difficult" but said it was important that those who believed in the issue took it forward.

Mr Wharton had told the BBC on Wednesday that while Europe was "important", if the Conservatives talked about it "to the exclusion of other things", there was a risk the party would be seen as not talking about "the things people care about".

Asked on Thursday about those comments, he said that by allowing the debate to go ahead, they could get back to focusing on those issues "that really matter to people".

The draft referendum bill he is now taking forward would require a referendum by the end of 2017 on the question: "Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?"

Queen's Speech 'regret'

It was published by David Cameron earlier this week in an effort to reassure his backbenchers.

But on Wednesday, 116 Conservative MPs, including Mr Wharton, backed a motion put forward by Eurosceptic Conservatives to "regret" the lack of an EU vote bill in the Queen's Speech.

The move was defeated by 277 votes to 131, as Lib Dems and Labour opposed it.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionGary O'Donoghue explains the hurdles and help ahead for Mr Wharton's EU referendum private member's bill

Senior Tories denied the result amounted to a rebellion but Labour said it was a big blow to Mr Cameron's authority.

Including tellers - the MPs who count the votes - 133 MPs supported the amendment.

'Calamitous mistake'

They included 11 Labour MPs, four Democratic Unionists, Lib Dem MP John Hemming and Respect's George Galloway.

The draft referendum bill now taken up by Mr Wharton could not be introduced by the government as it is not supported by the Lib Dems.

Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said his party would oppose Mr Wharton's bill.

"Of course we are not going to support an internal Conservative debate which is all about the Conservative Party trying to protect its flank against the threat from the UK Independence Party," he told the BBC.

And Eurosceptic MP John Baron said, while he would be supporting Mr Wharton's bill and the Conservatives would "rally round" it, there was a danger that expectations would be raised only for the bill to fail in the face of opposition from other parties.

Other MPs who did well in the private member's bill ballot will also get the chance to bring forward their own legislation.

Labour MP Paul Blomfield came second, Conservative Jonathan Lord was third and Conservative Sheryll Murray - who successfully got a private member's bill through Parliament last year - came fourth.

Tory Dan Byles, Labour's Sir Alan Meale and Labour's Andrew Gwynne came fifth, six and seventh respectively. The top seven are usually allocated a day's debate - giving their bills the best chance of becoming law.

The last two ballots have, by chance, been topped by the Labour MP John McDonnell - but both his proposed bills failed to make it into law.

More on this story