Lawmakers on Tuesday backed Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, but a heated debate highlighted passions that could split his Conservative Party and re-open Scotland’s bid for independence. Cameron, seeking to put an end to a decades-old rift within his party over Britain’s place in Europe, has promised to negotiate a new settlement with Brussels and hold a referendum by the end of 2017. Voters will be asked: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”, a choice of wording which allows the “in” campaign to brand itself as “Yes”.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to pass the EU Referendum Bill, which sets out the rules for the plebiscite, at Tuesday’s second reading in parliament, with 544 votes in favor to 53 against. It has the support of the opposition Labour Party, but in the debate, the government was assailed from all sides.
Cameron, who did not attend Tuesday’s debate, says he wants Britain to remain in a reformed EU and is confident he can get changes which would allow him to recommend that to Britons. But he has ruled nothing out if he does not secure reforms such as tighter restrictions on EU migrants’ access to welfare payments.
The issue of Europe is notorious for wreaking havoc within Cameron’s Conservatives, having contributed to the downfall of his predecessors Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Conservative skeptics have so far been careful to say they support Cameron’s negotiations with Brussels. But several made clear on Tuesday they fear a pro-EU government stitch-up and were looking closely at the rules.