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(Updates with Liberal Democrats starting in third paragraph.)
Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister David Cameron overcame the largest ever Conservative Party rebellion over the European Union as more than a quarter of his lawmakers voted in favor of a referendum on British membership of the bloc.
Cameron defeated a non-binding parliamentary motion calling for a plebiscite by 483 votes to 111 in the House of Commons in London late last night. Of the lawmakers voting against the government, 81 were Tories, including two ministerial aides, who lost their posts as a result.
Some rebels want Cameron to claw back powers from Europe if the EU needs to amend its treaties to accommodate bailouts for Greece, while others want to go as far as full withdrawal from the bloc. The showdown exposed differences with Cameron’s pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners, who say there won’t be any repatriation of powers.
“This is a very difficult issue for Cameron -- he’s having to walk a tightrope between maintaining the coalition with the Liberal Democrats and satisfying the anti-European urges of his party,” Mark Wickham-Jones, a professor of politics at the University of Bristol, said in a telephone interview.
Before the debate started, the prime minister urged Conservative lawmakers not to support the referendum motion, saying the timing was wrong with the euro area struggling to overcome its sovereign debt crisis.
‘Put Out the Flames’
“When your neighbor’s house is on fire, your first impulse should be to help them put out the flames, not least to stop the flames reaching your own house,” Cameron told the Commons. “This is not the time to argue about walking away, not just for their sakes but for ours.”
The relationship with Europe has plagued Conservative leaders ever since Britain was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism -- the precursor to the euro -- in 1992. It contributed to John Major’s 1997 election defeat. Cameron ordered a “three-line whip” for the vote, the toughest parliamentary device used to demand that his lawmakers back the government line.
“We have become run by Europe,” David Nuttall, the Conservative rebel who opened the referendum debate, told Parliament. “I want to be in Britain, run by Britain.”
One Tory ministerial aide, Adam Holloway, quit his post to support the motion. Another, Stewart Jackson, told the chamber he would vote against the government and “take the consequences.”
Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, sided with Cameron over the vote. He said on his Twitter Inc. feed that “this is a massive Tory rebellion and a humiliation” for the prime minister.
“We understand that many people who voted for it felt very strongly -- and we respect that,” Cameron’s office said in an e-mailed statement after the vote. It added that Cameron “shares the yearning for fundamental reform of the EU and is determined to achieve that.”
“The difference in policy between the government’s position and the rebels’ position can be exaggerated,” Education Secretary Michael Gove told BBC Radio 4 this morning. “You have, on the Conservative backbenches and in the Cabinet, colleagues and friends who want to change our relationship with the European Union.”
Those words of appeasement toward euro-skeptic Tories jarred with those of Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who said the coalition’s blueprint for government contains no pledge to begin negotiations to return powers to Britain.
“It’s not going to happen,” Clegg told reporters in London today, according to remarks confirmed by his office. “You don’t change Europe by launching some smash-and-grab dawn raid on Brussels.”
Cameron sought to calm the anger of the rebels, saying he had already prevented the EU from adopting further powers since he became prime minister last year and that he will “make the most” of any treaty changes to repatriate powers from the bloc.
The victory for Cameron may be Pyrrhic, according to Philip Cowley, a lecturer in politics at the University of Nottingham and an expert in parliamentary revolts. Even though last night’s revolt was the largest by Tory lawmakers on Europe and the biggest this government has faced on any issue, the events have the capacity to stir resentment and erode loyalty among rank- and-file members of Parliament.
“The outcome of the vote is irrelevant, and in some ways so too is the number of rebels,” Cowley said in a telephone interview. “What matters now is the massive bitterness this has caused within Cameron’s party. There’s another 3 1/2 years to go until the election, and he’s going to have some very unhappy people sitting behind him.”
Cameron is also struggling to have his voice heard in Europe, spending almost two hours on Oct. 23 on convincing EU leaders that Britain should be part of talks in Brussels this week on measures to contain the debt and banking crisis sweeping the continent. He scrapped plans to visit Japan and New Zealand when he got his way.
Tory rebel views may reflect the wider attitude of voters, according to a poll for ITV’s “News at 10” by ComRes Ltd., which showed 68 percent of voters wanting a vote on whether Britain should remain part of the EU.
That same poll showed 37 percent of voters want full withdrawal from the union, the same percentage as those wanting to remain part of the 27-nation bloc. ComRes interviewed 2,001 people from Oct. 21 to Oct. 23.
A separate ICM Research Ltd. poll for the Guardian newspaper found 49 percent of those questioned saying they would vote to withdraw from the EU, with 40 percent favoring staying in. ICM questioned 1,003 voters over the same three-day period. Neither poll gave a margin of error.
--Editors: Eddie Buckle, Leon Mangasarian
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