VIDEO: David Cameron in plea over EU referendum vote
Published 24/10/2011 | 16:52
BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron has pleaded with Tory MPs not to act "rashly and prematurely" today as he faced a major revolt over calls for an EU referendum.
The Prime Minister said he shared the frustrations of Eurosceptics who have been demanding for years that Britain reclaim powers from Brussels.
But he insisted those issues should not be addressed until the "burning building" of the eurozone debt crisis was under control.
The intervention, in an article for the Evening Standard, came amid claims that two ministers and more than half a dozen ministerial aides could defy the Government in the Commons this evening.
More than 60 backbenchers have also said they will vote for a referendum on membership of the EU, in the most serious challenge to Mr Cameron's authority since he became party leader six years ago.
Conservative MPs have accused the leadership of bullying tactics and bungling party management by imposing a strict three-line Whip on the motion.
There has also been a furious response to efforts by Foreign Secretary William Hague to quell the rebellion, with some backbenchers saying he had "gone native" and abandoned his Eurosceptic values.
Writing in the Standard, Mr Cameron insisted Britain needed to be "single-minded" about getting the EU to "contribute to economic growth, not hold it back".
That meant tackling the eurozone crisis, boosting free trade, and controlling budgets in Brussels, he said.
But he argued that an "in-out" referendum was the "wrong approach" at the "wrong time".
"Of course I share people's frustrations about how the EU works. I'm driven as mad by the bureaucracy as anyone else. But we cannot ignore our trade figures - 50% of that trade is with Europe," he wrote.
"I visit countless small businesses whose livelihoods depend on exports to the continent. For their sakes - for all our sakes - it's no use just saying 'Europe's not working for us' and pulling out.
"Single-mindedness means recognising that our membership of the EU gives us a seat at the table at which the rules of that market are made, and we must make those rules work for us."
He went on: "It's the wrong time to have this debate. We're in the middle of dealing with a crisis in the eurozone - a crisis that if left to escalate would have a major impact on our economy.
"If you're putting out the flames on a burning building you need to focus on the job, rather than give up and start a whole new project. You deal with the emergency at hand. That's what we need to do today."
Mr Cameron said there was a danger that "by raising the prospect of an in/out referendum, we miss the real opportunity to further our national interest".
"Many of us have been waiting for a generation for the chance to get the best deal for Britain in Europe," he added.
"Now that fundamental questions are being asked about the future of the eurozone, I believe that the opportunity to do that is coming.
"Put frankly, it would not be in our national interest to act rashly and prematurely, achieve nothing and blow this chance to negotiate a better deal for our country. Those are the reasons why I'm opposed to having a referendum now."
The premier said he had made the decision to impose a three-line Whip rather than allow a freer vote because "this issue and Parliament matters".
"The relationship between Britain and Europe isn't some marginal issue," he wrote. "And those of us who believe in the sovereignty of Parliament surely can't argue that some votes don't count."
Mr Cameron has postponed a foreign trip to attend the debate tonight, and spent the day meeting potential rebels in a bid to defuse the row.
The result of the vote is not binding, and Labour and Liberal Democrat support is almost certain to mean the motion will be defeated.
However, a substantial revolt and resignations from government could be highly damaging for the Prime Minister. The largest previous Tory rebellion over Europe was in 1993, when 41 MPs defied John Major on the Maastricht Treaty.
Mr Cameron also has to walk a tightrope with his Europhile Lib Dem coalition partners, who have dismissed the prospect of using the Eurozone crisis to repatriate powers to Westminster.
Stewart Jackson, PPS to Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, has pledged to vote for a referendum even though it will cost him his job.
Mr Jackson told Sky News the Tories "all wanted to get to the same place, but we're doing it in different ways".
But he said he disagreed with Mr Cameron's appeal for patience. "When is the right time?" he asked. "If not now, when?"
Earlier, Mr Hague compared the Commons vote on a referendum with a piece of "graffiti".
"Clearly our whole relationship with the European Union is a matter that concerns the Government as a whole and not just something for the House of Commons to put up some graffiti about," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
The UK's priority should be "protecting the British national interest" during talks to resolve the Eurozone crisis, according to Mr Hague.
"The right referendum is when any government suggests handing more power from Britain to the EU," he said.
But Peter Bone said the Conservative rank-and-file no longer trusted the Foreign Secretary.
"The trouble with William Hague is that people just don't believe him on the back benches," the Wellingborough MP said.
"We think Hague has gone on a travel. He has gone from being Eurosceptic to someone who has got into this ministerial, political world of Europe and loves it.
"There is a feeling that he is no longer Eurosceptic. He is not Eeurosceptic in my view."
He added: "I think the backbenches feel that time and time again we have said we are Eurosceptic and we are going to do something about this," he went on.
"Now we are in power, we are just as bad as the other lot."
Wrekin MP Mark Pritchard, secretary of the powerful Tory 1922 committee, said tonight's vote would be "a defining moment for many MPs who have for years called themselves Eurosceptic"
Speaking to MPs later, Mr Cameron insisted he remained "firmly committed" to "bringing back more powers" from Brussels.
But on demands for a referendum, he said the "timing is wrong" and that Britain's national interest was to be part of the EU.
"I share the yearning for fundamental reform and I am determined to deliver it," he said.
"Those who are supporting today's motion but don't actually want to leave the EU, I say to you this - I respect your views, we disagree about ends, not about means, I support your aims.
"Like you, I want fundamental reform, like you I want to refashion our membership of the EU so that it better serves our nation's interests. The time for reform is coming, that is the prize, let us not be distracted from seizing it."