By Tim Montgomerie
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The Daily Mail reports that Downing Street is in full panic mode over a vote on an EU referendum. They have been stunned at the level of support from Tory MPs for next week's motion calling for a referendum on Britain's future relationship with the EU.
While the specific issue is Europe it is also a product of a widening gap between Number 10 and many Tory backbenchers, especially on the so-called Right. The decision to replace Liam Fox with a member of what Nick Watt has called the "Court of George" – Justine Greening – has upset the balance of the Cabinet. By not promoting a figure from the Right Cameron has been perceived to send a powerful message to already disgruntled members of his parliamentary party that he plans to govern without them. They are responding in kind. On Radio 4's Today programme Mark Pritchard MP said that he was prepared to defy a three line whip on the issue if it was imposed. Slowly but steadily Cameron's aloof style of leadership is fostering a hard core of habitual rebels.
More than that, however, mainstream members of the new intake are also drawing a line in the sand. Chris Heaton-Harris MP, for example, is one of the instigators of the new 'Fresh Start' Eurosceptic group that has the Tory leadership's blessing. Nonetheless, yesterday, he was warning Downing Street against whipping next week's vote.
Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, has made a rare public intervention today. In an article for The Telegraph he welcomes next week's opportunity for MPs to vote on a referendum for Britain's future relationship with the EU. As the elected champion of backbench opinion he also urges Downing Street to ensure Tory MPs enjoy a free vote:
"David Cameron has said that he won’t support the motion, because he thinks there are more important issues at the moment. That is perfectly reasonable: this is a backbench debate, and there is no need for ministers to participate. What matters is that backbench MPs of all parties should be free to vote in accordance with our beliefs and in the interests of our constituents.
The Coalition Agreement commits ministers to examining “the balance of the EU’s existing competences”. I believe that a clear vote in the Commons next week will strengthen their hand in negotiations, as the debate on votes for prisoners did last February. A referendum would also provide an important opportunity for the British people to participate in one of the most important decisions about the future of our democracy and economy.
Personally, I believe that such a vote would give the Government an overwhelming mandate to seek the return of vital powers to British control. Equally important, it would send a clear message to the people that when it comes to deciding on our relationship with Europe, it is not something politicians should do over their heads: we are all in it together."
There is talk that Cameron is planning to promise a White Paper that will examine the balance of power in Europe and ask Tory MPs to vote for this instead of the current David Nuttall motion. It may succeed as a short-term tactic but a large number of Conservative MPs no longer trust the leadership's instincts on Europe. Yet again Europe is causing internal party divisions and the parliament isn't even 18 months old.