Monday, May 13, 2013

Tories force David Cameron to enshrine EU vote in law

DAVID Cameron has bowed to pressure from Tory rebels by guaranteeing in law his promise to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.

In an effort to draw a line under the party's turmoil, the Conservatives will today publish a Bill ensuring an in-out vote before the end of 2017.

The Prime Minister's change of heart came 48 hours before more than 100 Conservative MPs and ministerial aides were due to vote against the Queen's Speech because it lacked such a measure. Mr Cameron's surprise move, announced while he was in the US, took senior Lib Dems by surprise and will lead to a stand-off at the top of the coalition.

Nick Clegg's office said that the Deputy Prime Minister would refuse to allow government time for the Bill, which makes it almost impossible for the measure to pass into law even if it could command a Commons majority.

But the move is as much about setting up electoral dividing lines with Labour and the Lib Dems and trying to restore order to restive Conservative ranks.

US President Barack Obama came to Mr Cameron's aid yesterday, warning mutinous Tories against a hasty exit from the EU. As the Prime Minister struggled with another day of internal rows over Europe, Mr Obama gave an unequivocal endorsement of Mr Cameron's "negotiate now, vote later" European strategy.

He warned that the special relationship would suffer if Britain cut its ties with Brussels. Britain's EU membership was "an expression of its influence", he said. But, in a change of emphasis from the White House, he acknowledged that Mr Cameron was within his rights to try to fix Britain's relationship with the EU.

"David's basic point, that you probably want to see if you can fix what's broken in a very important relationship before you break it off, makes some sense to me," Mr Obama said.

The President's endorsement, delivered alongside the Prime Minister at a White House press conference, put a spring in the step of Mr Cameron's entourage but is unlikely to cut much ice with Eurosceptic Tories.

In Westminster, cabinet ministers remained quiet after Mr Cameron chided Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, and Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, for saying they would vote to leave the EU if a referendum were held today. He also accused the likes of Lord Lawson of Blaby, who began the latest debate last week with his call in The Times for Britain to quit the EU, and Michael Portillo, who argued that any negotiation would get nowhere, of "throwing in the towel".

But Tories from either end of the party's spectrum on Europe were at loggerheads. Lord Forsyth of Drumlean became the latest former cabinet minister to write off Mr Cameron's EU strategy, saying that the task the Prime Minister had set himself was impossible and that he had no hope of persuading Brussels to reform.

"To use an analogy, I think David Cameron is thinking he can persuade the golf club to play tennis," the peer told the BBC.

The amendment, and the Tory Bill, would write into law Mr Cameron's commitment to an in-out EU referendum in 2017, on new terms that he plans to negotiate.

Mr Obama's carefully delivered riposte represented a major and rare intervention by a US President into British domestic politics.

He urged voters to wait and see the new relationship Mr Cameron could deliver. "I, at least, would be interested in seeing whether or not those are successful before rendering a final judgment," he said.

The White House had previously been opposed to any move towards a British exit, a move that it believes would make its dealings with Europe more difficult.

Another Tory row was brewing as some MPs expressed interest in standing as "Tory-UKIP" candidates in the 2015 general election.

Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone backed the idea of local arrangements, which allowed Conservative candidates to seek the endorsement of Nigel Farage.

Conservative high command is resisting the idea but Mr Bone said that harnessing the Tory and UKIP vote to one candidate would deliver Mr Cameron an overall majority.

"There's clearly a holy grail there if we can get the Prime Minister to give a bit," he said.


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