Prime Minister David Cameron avoided an embarrassing parliamentary defeat last night, but only after Labour decided to abstain from a key vote.
More than two dozen Conservative backbenchers rebelled over rules surrounding an EU referendum that Cameron has promised will take place before the end of 2017.
A cross-party combination including 27 Tory rebels and all 56 SNP MPs voted to support an amendment to the EU referendum bill, setting out strict rules for government campaigning before an in/out referendum.
The final vote was 288-97, in favour of the government, but Cameron would have lost the vote on “purdah” – a pre-referendum campaign period – had the Labour party not abstained.
The vote calls into question the Prime Minister’s command over his own party, just six weeks after the Tories secured a 12-seat overall majority in the General Election.
Cameron has faced intense pressure from backbenchers over the referendum, with vocal eurosceptics criticising the timing and parameters of an in/out vote.
On Monday night, No 10 conceded to backbenchers’ demands to rule out holding the referendum on the same day as any other election.
Yesterday morning, Europe minister David Lidington emailed Tory MPs in an attempt to assuage concerns over purdah, saying the government would table more amendments to the bill in the autumn so that all parties would find the legislation “fair.”
It is also understood that foreign secretary Philip Hammond met with MPs yesterday to drum up support. But the efforts were not enough to convince many Tories.
Steve Baker, who defied the whip, told City A.M. last night: “We’re not looking for the minister’s reassurances, we’re looking for the law to be right. We want a free and fair election where the government doesn’t campaign with taxpayers’ money.”
Baker dismissed suggestions that the vote was a snub for the PM: “We’ve all got to relax a bit and get used to the idea we can vote against the government and say you don’t agree without it challenging someone’s masculinity.”
Meanwhile, Labour seized the opportunity to criticise the Prime Minister, with shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn saying the Tory government “is already in chaos.”