Five ex-Tory min­is­ters vote against PM in re­bel­lion over EU poll

Daily Mail - - News - By Ja­son Groves Deputy Po­lit­i­cal Edi­tor

DAVID Cameron faced a Tory re­bel­lion in the Com­mons last night over claims he is try­ing to ‘rig’ the ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship of the EU.

Some 27 of his MPs voted against the Prime Min­is­ter’s con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion to al­low the full weight of the govern­ment ma­chine to cam­paign for Bri­tain’s con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship of the EU dur­ing the ref­er­en­dum.

Min­is­ters were spared a hu­mil­i­at­ing Com­mons de­feat only when Labour de­cided to ab­stain.

The rebels in­cluded five former Tory Cabi­net min­is­ters, with former de­fence sec­re­tary Liam Fox de­fy­ing the Tory whips for the first time in his 23-year Com­mons ca­reer. Many more Con­serva-

‘More in sor­row

than anger’

tive MPs de­cided to keep their pow­der dry af­ter min­is­ters in­di­cated they may make con­ces­sions on the is­sue when the EU Ref­er­en­dum Bill re­turns to the Com­mons in the au­tumn.

An at­tempt to re­in­state the tra­di­tional four-week ‘pur­dah’ pe­riod – when pub­lic funds can­not be spent on po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ing – was de­feated com­fort­ably, with the Govern­ment win­ning the Com­mons vote by 288 to 97 af­ter Labour ab­stained. But the scale of the re­bel­lion will alarm Down­ing Street, as will the per­cep­tion that Mr Cameron is try­ing to fix the out­come of the ref­er­en­dum.

Europe Min­is­ter David Lid­ing­ton tried to head off a re­bel­lion yes­ter­day by pledg­ing that the Govern­ment would not use tax­pay­ers’ money to dis­trib­ute pro-EU pro­pa­ganda to vot­ers dur­ing the last four weeks of the ref­er­en­dum cam­paign. He also sug­gested the Govern­ment may make fur­ther con­ces­sions later this year. In a let­ter to Tory MPs, Mr Lid­ing­ton said min­is­ters had to be free to make state­ments about Euro­pean is­sues and ar­gue the Govern­ment’s case dur­ing the ref­er­en­dum cam­paign. Mr Cameron has said the Govern­ment will not be a ‘by­stander’ dur­ing the cam­paign.

But Mr Lid­ing­ton con­ceded it was im­por­tant the ref­er­en­dum was seen to be fair and that ‘ev­ery­body will feel they are able to ac­cept the re­sult’. The re­as­sur­ances failed to con­vince rebel MPs, who said it would be wrong for civil ser­vants to take sides dur­ing the fi­nal month of a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign.

Vet­eran Eu­roscep­tic Sir Bill Cash said crit­ics were vot­ing against the Govern­ment ‘more in sor­row than anger’. Dr Fox said he felt he had ‘no choice’ but to vote against the Govern­ment, given the im­por­tance of the is­sue.

He added: ‘If peo­ple be­lieve that they have been bounced or that the re­sult is the con­se­quence of a rigged process it will be­come ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for that to hap­pen and the po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences in my view will be quite in­tense.’

Other se­nior rebels in­cluded the former en­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary Owen Paterson and the former Welsh sec­re­taries David Jones, Ch­eryl Gil­lan and John Red­wood. Former at­tor­ney-gen­eral Do­minic Grieve crit­i­cised the Govern­ment’s ‘ cack­handed’ ap­proach to the is­sue.

The SNP, which voted with the Tory rebels, mocked Labour for ab­stain­ing. Alex Sal­mond said Labour ‘need to find a back­bone and be­come an ef­fec­tive op­po­si­tion’.

Shadow Europe min­is­ter Pat McFad­den said Labour did not op­pose the Govern­ment’s wish to sus­pend pur­dah, but called for clar­ity over what it in­tends to do or pub­lish dur­ing the ref­er­en­dum pe­riod.

A sep­a­rate pro­posal by the SNP to give vot­ers in each of the four na­tions of the UK a veto over exit from the EU was heav­ily de­feated.

Ear­lier, the Govern­ment was also forced to back down over sep­a­rate mea­sures in the EU Ref­er­en­dum Bill that would have al­lowed Mr Cameron to hold the ref­er­en­dum on the same day as ma­jor elec­tions in Scot­land, Wales and Lon­don.

Fac­ing de­feat in the Com­mons, Mr Lid­ing­ton amended the leg­is­la­tion to rule out hold­ing the poll on May 5 next year. The climb­down came less than a week af­ter Mr Cameron de­fended the right to hold the ref­er­en­dum on May 5 in the Com­mons.

The previous week the Prime Min­is­ter was forced to shelve plans to force min­is­ters to re­sign in or­der to cam­paign for Bri­tish exit from the EU, fol­low­ing a back­lash from his own party.

Quentin Letts – Page 20

‘Find a back­bone’

Liam Fox: De­fied the party whip for the first time

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