23rd Oct 2016

UK's EU referendum moves a step closer

  • The Conservatives' referendum bill was backed unanimously after Labour and the Liberal Democrats boycotted the vote (Photo: murphyz)

Britain took another step towards an in/out referendum on its membership of the EU on Friday (5 July) after MPs unanimously backed a bill guaranteeing a vote by the end of 2017.

The bill, which was tabled by Conservative back-bench MP James Wharton, but has the support of prime minister David Cameron, would bind the next parliament to hold an 'in/out' vote on EU membership.

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However, in a rare twist of parliamentary procedure, the bill was supported by 304 MPs, fewer than 50 per cent of the 650 members of the House of Commons, after the opposition Labour party boycotted the vote.

The pro-European Liberal Democrats, who serve in Cameron's Conservative-dominated government, also distanced themselves from the debate and vote, describing it as a 'publicity stunt'.

But while Labour has so-far failed to match the Conservatives' support for a referendum, the party's foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander refused to rule out a vote in the future.

"Any judgment in relation to an in-out referendum has to be based on the national interest," he said, adding that "our judgment is that the national interest is not served by this bill and that is why we do not support it."

In a boisterous debate dominated by Conservative eurosceptics, Foreign Secretary William Hague endorsed the bill which was, he said, "about giving people the power to decide one of the greatest questions facing Britain."

In January, Cameron unveiled plans to re-negotiate the terms of Britain's EU membership if his Conservative party won re-election, with a view to holding a referendum in 2017.

But the commitment to renegotiate with a view to winning fresh opt-outs from EU policies, followed by a vote in the next Parliament was not enough to satisfy Conservative MPs.

In May, Cameron agreed to back an EU referendum bill to face down a rebellion from around 60 Conservative MPs angry that the Queen's speech, which sets out the government's legislative priorities for the next year, had not include provisions for a referendum.

Two years ago the coalition put in place a 'referendum lock' bill, guaranteeing a referendum on any future treaty change involving a transfer of powers from national to European level.

The bill will now go before members of the House of Lords, Britain's non-elected second chamber.

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