British Prime Minister David Cameron was Monday attempting to face down Conservative rebels demanding a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union.
With the rebels claiming up to 100 Conservative MPs could defy the party managers and back a referendum in tonight’s House of Commons vote, Cameron faces the most serious challenge to his authority since taking office, commentators said.
At the EU summit yesterday in Brussels, the Prime Minister attempted to draw some of the heat from the revolt by suggesting Britain could exploit the eurozone crisis to start reclaiming powers from the EU.
But he was immediately plunged into a furious public row with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners who do not support the repatriation of powers from Brussels.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg issued a statement through his spokesman warning it was “far too early to speculate” on what the Government’s position would be in the event of any moves to change EU treaties.
Cameron had suggested that if the eurozone countries sought greater integration in order to resolve the problems of the single currency – which would require the unanimous support of all 27 member states – the UK would “exact a price”.
However, the Lib Dem leader’s shot across the bows threatened to wreck his attempts to win over rebels within his own ranks while inflaming tensions between the two parties, the commentators noted.
With both the opposition Labour and the Liberal Democrats whipping their MPs to vote against the motion, the Government is guaranteed a comfortable majority in the Commons, the commentators added.
However, the vote threatens to reopen deep wounds within the Conservative Party over Britain’s position in the EU, raising the prospect of a return to the Conservatives civil war of the 1990s, they pointed out.
So far, 60 Conservative MPs have signed the motion calling for a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU, leave it or renegotiate its membership while another 33 have signed compromise amendments which ministers say also run counter to Government policy.
Ministers confirmed over the weekend that the Government would be imposing party discipline, requiring Conservative MPs to vote against the motion or face the prospect of expulsion or suspension from the party.
There have been reports of the Conservative managers threatening potential rebels that they will damage their chances of a ministerial job or lose their seats when parliamentary boundaries are redrawn if they do not fall into line.
The move has angered many Conservatives, who argued they should be given a free vote on what was a non-binding, backbench motion in a debate triggered as a result on an e-petition on the No 10 website attracting more than 100,000 signatures.
There are reports that the rebels will include a number of parliamentary private secretaries – the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder – who will be forced to resign as a result.
Mark Pritchard, the secretary of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, said that there was still time for ministers to drop their threats against the rebels.