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