British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing growing questions about his leadership as he struggles to contain a caucus revolt over Britain’s membership in the European Union.
On Tuesday, Mr. Cameron bowed to pressure within his party and agreed to support proposed legislation that will commit the government to hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017. According to the draft bill, Britons will be given a simple question to answer: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”
The measure is more about politics than policy because it has almost no chance of becoming law. It has also failed to ease concerns among many of Mr. Cameron’s critics, inside and outside his party, who believe he lacks direction on the EU issue and is simply trying to appease his caucus.
For months, Mr. Cameron has said he wanted to renegotiate Britain’s participation in the EU and then put the new deal to a vote by 2017. But that is contingent on his Conservative Party winning the next election in 2015.
While Britain is a member of the 27-member EU, it has not signed on to every EU treaty and has won exemptions from some EU policy decisions. For example, it does not use the euro and it is not a party to all of the Schengen agreement, which opened borders between signatory European countries. Nonetheless, many people in Britain believe the British economy has been strangled by EU regulations, human-rights policies and relaxation of border controls.
Mr. Cameron has not been specific about what he would renegotiate, but has expressed support for change in the way the union operates.
A growing number of Tory MPs have grown dissatisfied with Mr. Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate EU membership and then have a referendum. Some Tories have demanded an earlier vote on the EU, while others called on the Prime Minister to do what he has finally done now – put the commitment into legislation to show voters he is serious. This week, further cracks in the caucus appeared when two cabinet ministers said that if a referendum were held today, they would vote to withdraw from the EU.
Driving much of the Conservative angst is the surging threat of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip, which fiercely opposes EU membership and wants limits on immigration. Both positions strike a chord with voters and Ukip scored a number of upsets in recent local elections. While the party has never polled more than about 3 per cent in a general election, its popularity now stands at 18 per cent, according to a poll released this week by the Guardian newspaper. The Tories are at 28 per cent, their lowest level in a decade, while the opposition Labour Party is at 34 per cent.
Mr. Cameron’s pledge on Tuesday to support referendum legislation has done little to soothe his critics. That’s partly because the proposed bill likely won’t ever pass into law. Mr. Cameron’s Tories don’t have a majority in the House of Commons and are in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who back the EU and oppose the referendum.
As a result, Mr. Cameron could not introduce the legislation as a government bill because he would risk ending the coalition. Instead, the Conservative Party drafted the bill and plans to have it introduced as private members’ bills. Those bills rarely succeed in the best of times and the prospects for this one are even dimmer because Labour and the Liberal Democrats don’t support it.
Despite Mr. Cameron’s proposed referendum bill, a group of 80 Tory MPs said on Tuesday they will press ahead with their own motion Wednesday, which chastises the government for failing to include the EU referendum in the recent Speech from the Throne.
“The nature of our relationship with the EU is of fundamental importance to this country, and therefore political transparency is needed,” said John Baron, a Tory MP who introduced Wednesday’s motion. “Too many politicians have obfuscated for too long, and the electorate are tired of it.”
Mr. Cameron stood by his latest effort. He told Sky News during a visit to Boston on Tuesday: “When all the dust has settled, I think that people will be able to see that there is one party, the Conservative Party, offering that in-out referendum and two other mainstream parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who oppose an in-out referendum.”