June 12, 2014 9:47 pm

Tory backbencher to try to force referendum

David Cameron’s promise to give Britain a referendum on EU membership in 2017 could be put into law before the election, after a Conservative MP won a place in a ballot that allows backbenchers to put forward legislation.

Bob Neill, a vice-chairman of the Conservative party, pledged to put forward the legislation after coming third in an annual private member’s bill ballot behind two Liberal Democrat MPs.

Mr Neill, a former planning minister said he would bring forward a bill to enshrine into law a referendum in 2017. A bill on the same topic, put forward by Tory backbencher James Wharton, was passed by the House of Commons last year but collapsed because of Labour and Lib Dem opposition in the House of Lords.

“One of the first votes I cast was on EU membership in the 1970s,” said Mr Neill. “Now as I pick up my bus pass I am getting the chance to work with colleagues to secure a referendum for the British people.”

Mr Cameron delighted his eurosceptic backbenchers by indicating he is prepared to take the rare step of using the Parliament Act to get the bill passed, if the Lords block it again.

“This is every encouraging,” said David Nuttall, a eurosceptic Tory MP. “I would have thought that given it got through the Commons last time, it will again. And in terms of our position going into the election, if for whatever reason it fails, no one could say it was the fault of the Conservatives. There will be others to blame but we will have done our bit.”

The Conservatives are the most eurosceptic of the three main political parties, but many of their voters have defected to the UK Independence party, which is anti-immigration and anti-EU. Ukip topped the European elections last month with 28 per cent of UK votes. The Conservatives came third behind Labour.

The Tories have been forced to fall back on private members’ legislation because their Lib Dem coalition partners have refused to agree to a government bill, which would have much greater prospects of success.

The bills will need support from eurosceptic Labour MPs to pass the House of Commons – the Lib Dems are a pro-Europe party.

A party spokesman for the Lib Dems refused to say whether they would block the bill. “There’s a long way to go before we get to voting or parliament acts or anything. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Labour said on Thursday it did not support the bill, which if passed would bind a future government to either holding the referendum or having to overturn the law.

“It is a sign of Cameron’s desperation that he is ready to use any number of backdoor procedures in parliament to keep his backbenchers on side.”

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