British MPs back bill for referendum on EU exit
A REFERENDUM on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union has come a step closer after MPs overwhelmingly backed a public vote in 2017.
Conservative MPs put aside their differences over Britain's membership of the EU, uniting in support of a backbench bill to enshrine in law David Cameron's promise of an in/out referendum. It was passed for a second reading by 304 votes to nil. Most Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs abstained after their leaders dismissed it as a stunt, but six Labour Eurosceptics rebelled, voting in favour.
The Private Member's Bill is unlikely to become law because of a lack of parliamentary time. But yesterday's huge majority will keep up the pressure for a referendum – and for Labour to do a U-turn and come out in favour of one so it is not isolated at the 2015 election.
Mr Cameron, who joined the packed Tory benches for yesterday's debate, said later the Commons decision had brought Parliament "one step closer to giving the British people a say on Europe".
The EU (Referendum) Bill was introduced by James Wharton, the youngest Tory MP at 29, who said generations of people had been denied a say on Europe since the country decided to stay in at the 1975 referendum. He said: "I am not here today to put an argument about whether we should be in or out . . . but that we should let the British people have a say."
William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, told the Commons it was "the right bill, at the right time". He said: "The efforts of those who want to build European integration without bringing the people with them have been utterly self-defeating."
Challenged by Labour MPs, Mr Hague said he would vote in a referendum "to stay in a successfully reformed EU", as would Mr Cameron. Many Tory MPs have already signalled that they would vote to pull out.
For Labour, Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "We do not believe that an in/out referendum in 2017, as anticipated by this bill, is in the national interest." He said Mr Cameron's referendum pledge had been "driven by weakness not by strength. This is about external electoral threats (from UKIP) and internal leadership threats."
However, Mr Alexander refused to rule out a Labour change of heart on a referendum before the 2015 election, and there are growing signs that it will support one.
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, told MPs: "I believe this should be done sooner rather than later."
Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems' deputy leader, said his constituents' priorities were "jobs, growth and investment", which would be put at risk by the uncertainty over EU membership caused by the spectre of a 2017 referendum. (© Independent News Service)