Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

One step closer to EU vote, says PM

David Cameron wants to 'give the British people their say on Europe'

David Cameron has insisted the British people are "one step closer" to getting a say on European Union membership a referendum legislation cleared its first parliamentary hurdle.

Tory backbencher James Wharton's European Union (Referendum) Bill was given its second reading by 304 votes to zero after Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs abstained.

The rare unanimous vote, which was greeted with loud cheering in the Commons, was only possible because two Conservatives acted as tellers for the Noes in a bid to embarrass their political opponents.

Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have dismissed the Bill as a stunt designed to shore up the Prime Minister's position with his rank and file - pointing out that it has virtually no chance of becoming law. But posting on Twitter, Mr Cameron wrote: "Referendum Bill passes first Commons stage, bringing us one step closer to giving the British people a say on Europe."

Highly unusually for backbench legislation, the prime minister and other senior ministers including Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague were positioned prominently on the front bench as the Bill was introduced.

By contrast, the Labour and Liberal Democrat benches were sparsely occupied, with the bulk of the parties' MPs obeying the guidance of their leaders to stay away.

During the debate, Mr Osborne appeared to congratulate Mr Wharton. The MP for Stockton South was seen to mouth "Thank you" to the Chancellor

Tory MPs - who on Thursday night enjoyed a barbecue hosted by Mr Cameron in the garden of 10 Downing Street - were jubilant at having voted for a referendum which for many has become a totemic issue. In May, 115 of them backed an amendment to the Queen's Speech criticising the failure to include a referendum Bill in the Government's legislative programme.

Labour leader Mr Miliband - who was absent from Westminster on Friday - came under renewed pressure to commit Labour to a public vote when one of his frontbench spokesmen broke ranks to call for a vote to be held even sooner than under Mr Cameron's plans.

Dudley North MP Ian Austin, a former aide to Gordon Brown, wrote in the Express and Star newspaper: "The truth is that the UK needs to decide and I would prefer it to do so more quickly. I know this isn't Labour Party policy, but my view is that we should have a referendum next year on the same day as the European elections."

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