EU ref­er­en­dum bill over the first hur­dle in UK Par­lia­ment


Leg­is­la­tion paving the way for Bri­tain’s ref­er­en­dum on leav­ing the EU crossed its first hur­dle in Par­lia­ment Tues­day as splits on the is­sue within Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron’s party were laid bare.

The House of Com­mons backed the Euro­pean Union Ref­er­en­dum Bill as ex­pected by 544 votes to 53 but the mea­sure must now pass through sev­eral other par­lia­men­tary de­bates and votes be­fore be­com­ing law.

Six hours of speeches high­lighted di­vi­sions within Cameron’s cen­treright Con­ser­va­tives over Europe and the prob­lems he faces en route to the ref­er­en­dum with a nar­row 12-seat ma­jor­ity and dozens of MPs likely to back leav­ing.

The vote came the day af­ter com­ments by Cameron trig­gered a row about whether min­is­ters in his gov­ern­ment would have to re­sign if they did not cam­paign for Bri­tain to re­main in Europe.

Open­ing pro­ceed­ings, For­eign Sec­re­tary Philip Ham­mond said many Bri­tons felt “the EU has come to feel like some­thing that is done to them, not for them.

The ref­er­en­dum, which is due by the end of 2017 but could be held as early as next year, was trig­gered when the Con­ser­va­tives won a ma­jor­ity in last month’s gen­eral elec­tion.

Cameron is cur­rently hold­ing a wave of talks with other Euro­pean lead­ers to try and win re­forms to the EU which he wants be­fore the ref­er­en­dum.

He is ex­pected to out­line for­mally a list of de­mands at a Euro­pean Coun­cil sum­mit later this month. Th­ese are likely to in­clude mak­ing it harder for EU mi­grants to claim state benefits in Bri­tain.

Cameron will vote in fa­vor of re­main­ing in the EU if he can se­cure the changes he wants, while opin­ion polling cur­rently sug­gests Bri­tish vot­ers would back stay­ing in Europe.

Trou­ble Ahead?

Me­dia and some eu­roskep­tic MPs had in­ter­preted com­ments by Cameron over the week­end as mean­ing that those who wanted to vote against EU membership would have to quit his gov­ern­ment.

The prime min­is­ter said on Sun­day: “If you want to be part of the gov­ern­ment you have to take the view that we are en­gaged in an ex­er­cise of rene­go­ti­a­tion to have a ref­er­en­dum and that will lead to a suc­cess­ful out­come.”

But Cameron’s spokes­woman re­it­er­ated Tues­day that he had not yet de­cided whether min­is­ters would be al­lowed to cam­paign on dif­fer­ent sides in the ref­er­en­dum.

Lon­don Mayor Boris John­son, now also an MP and seen as a po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor to Cameron, told LBC ra­dio Tues­day it would be “safer and more har­mo­nious” to let min­is­ters cam­paign to leave the EU.

Speak­ers dur­ing the widerang­ing Com­mons de­bate also flagged the clash of opin­ion in the Con­ser­va­tives over Europe, hit by di­vi­sions on the is­sue since the era of Mar­garet Thatcher in the 1980s.

Ken­neth Clarke, a vet­eran proEuro­pean and ex-Thatcher min­is­ter, said Bri­tain would be lis­tened to less by world pow­ers if it left Europe, a pro­posal he called “a fan­ci­ful, escapist route into iso­lated na­tion­al­ism. But l ead­ing eu­roskep­tic John Red­wood ar­gued that the ref­er­en­dum was a chance to re­store Bri­tain’s “pre­cious but dam­aged democ­racy” and would leave the coun­try wealth­ier.

Red­wood is one of at least 50 MPs in a new group called Con­ser­va­tives for Bri­tain which will ac­cept only “fun­da­men­tal change” in the re­la­tion­ship with the EU.

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