LONDON – Britain's Conservative Party will on Tuesday propose laws to force an in-out referendum on the country's membership of the European Union to be held by the end of 2017, the party confirmed.
Prime Minister David Cameron is hoping to head off growing pressure from the eurosceptic wing of his party after 70 rebel MPs threatened to defy him in a parliamentary vote scheduled for Wednesday.
Eurosceptic MP John Baron introduced the non-binding motion expressing "regret" that last week's Queen's Speech, which set out the government's priorities for the year, did not include a promise to legislate for a referendum.
Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EU if his party wins a majority at the next general election in 2015. Currently the Tories share power with the smaller pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
But following the rise of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), some Tories are demanding an earlier vote or a binding commitment to force a referendum even if the party were to lose the next election.
Party leaders are hoping that the publication of Tuesday's "draft legislation," which would write this commitment into law if passed, will persuade the rebel MPs to drop their bill criticising the Queen's Speech.
But Baron later said the proposal was "not good enough" as there was no guarantee it would become law.
"By far the better option is for the government to have the courage to support our amendment on Wednesday, force Labour and the Liberals to decide and if we succeed in that amendment then the government could introduce a Bill through normal channels and that would have a much better chance of succeeding," he told BBC News.
The Lib Dems will likely block Cameron's efforts to bring the bill himself, therefore it is expected to be introduced by a Conservative backbencher as a "Private Members' bill," confirmed a Tory Party spokesman.
The bill would normally be defeated as the opposition Labour Party traditionally backs Britain's EU membership, but the party could vote in favour of the referendum in order to pile pressure on Cameron.
If a referendum were forced before the general election, the prime minister would be expected to campaign to keep Britain in the bloc, potentially putting him at odds with public opinion and jeopardising his chances of re-election.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander accused Cameron of caving in to his backbenchers.
"This seems to be just the latest panicked response from the Prime Minister," he said.
"David Cameron is a Prime Minister who has both lost control of the agenda and lost control of his party.
"This latest step has more to do with trying to get his party back in line rather than getting the economy back on track," added the Labour MP.
Senior Tory ministers Michael Gove and Philip Hammond on Sunday said they would vote against Britain's EU membership if a vote was held the day after.
A poll carried out by Guardian/ICM on Monday showed that UKIP support had doubled to 18 per cent and that 35 per cent of Britons favoured an immediate referendum.
Only 22 per cent said they would definitely vote to stay in the union.
US President Barack Obama on Monday endorsed Cameron's Europe strategy and stressed that it was up to Britons to decide their own fate.
Obama strikingly backed Cameron's plan to seek to renegotiate Britain's membership in the bloc, before holding an in-out referendum, after talks at the White House.
"I will say this, that David's basic point that you probably want to see if you can fix what's broken in a very important relationship before you break it off makes some sense to me," Obama said at a press conference with Cameron in Washington. – afp