Prime Minister David Cameron was handed a bruising defeat late last night as a coalition of Labour, SNP and eurosceptic Conservatives rejected the government’s latest proposals surrounding the EU referendum.
In Cameron’s first defeat of the new parliament, just 285 MPs backed the government’s amendment to the EU referendum bill, while 312 MPs voted against it – even after a last-minute retreat by ministers.
The government had proposed a form of “purdah” – a pre-election campaign period – that critics had dismissed as being “watered-down”.
In a double blow for Cameron, after MPs rejected the government’s proposals, they swiftly backed an amendment put forward by the Labour party, which set out more extensive rules for the pre-election period.
After the votes were counted, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn said: “This is a humiliating defeat for David Cameron, with members from all sides of the House supporting Labour’s approach to purdah, which ensures fairness in the conduct of the referendum campaign while permitting normal government business to take place.
“The government should never have rushed through its flawed plans to play fast and loose with the rules on the referendum,” Benn added.
The government’s proposals had marked a U-turn for Cameron, who earlier this year had refused to impose a period of purdah in the run-up to an in/out vote.
But amid increased pressure from eurosceptic Tory backbenchers who said that a restricted pre-election period would ensure the fairness of a referendum, the government last week tabled changes allowing for purdah.
That backdown came just one day after Cameron bowed to pressure to change the wording of the EU referendum question. The elections watchdog and eurosceptics had said that the question included in the legislation could be seen as biased against Britain leaving the EU.
And late last night, the government caved in further to pressure from its backbenchers, scrapping a separate amendment to the EU referendum bill which would have allowed the government to call the vote with as little as four weeks’ notice.
But the retreat was not enough. City A.M. understands that at least 35 eurosceptic Tories rebelled against the government in last night’s vote.
Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe who co-chairs the eurosceptic Conservatives for Britain group, told City A.M. last night that he was pleased with the outcome.
“I regret that it was necessary to force a division this evening, but I am glad that the bill is now in a better place to support the legitimacy of the referendum in due course,” he said, adding: “The government is now in a position to work within the usual framework of purdah and to bring forward any very specific exemptions they feel they need.”
Robert Oxley, campaign director for the eurosceptic Business for Britain group, agreed, telling City A.M.: “Tonight’s vote was an important step to ensure that the EU referendum will be seen as fair and legitimate.
“MPs from across the political spectrum have done the public a service by ensuring rules against taxpayer-funded government campaigning have been kept in the referendum rule book,” he added. “We are pleased with tonight’s vote, but there is still more to do as the bill continues to make its way through parliament.”
The SNP, meanwhile, struck a less optimistic note, with international affairs spokesperson Alex Salmond saying that the defeat demonstrated the weakness of Cameron’s majority.
“David Cameron has completely lost control of the European referendum process and is now being controlled entirely by events and parliamentary arithmetic,” Salmond said, adding: “This latest defeat shows that they cannot ride roughshod over parliament.”