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May fears over EU bill amendment
Theresa May insists leadership-backed proposals for an in/out European Union (EU) referendum could be jeopardised by a backbench Tory MP's attempts to force a vote before the general election.
The Home Secretary followed Number 10 in slapping down Adam Afriyie's plan to table an amendment to legislation, which paves the way for a promised vote in 2017.
Windsor MP Mr Afriyie - once the subject of leadership bid speculation - said the public was "not convinced" Prime Minister David Cameron would stick to his pledge of a vote if the Conservatives win the general election in 2015.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Afriyie said delaying posed "significant dangers", including building support for the UK Independence Party (Ukip) - a serious concern for many colleagues and activists.
He claimed the support of "many MPs from across all the main parties" for an early referendum.
But with Number 10 insisting Mr Afriyie's amendment would not be allowed to pass "in any circumstances", Ms May she thought Mr Afriyie had "got it wrong".
She added it could pose a threat to James Wharton's Government-backed private members' bill.
Mr Wharton's proposal aims for a referendum in 2017 to give the UK time to renegotiate the terms of its EU membership.
Ms May told BBC1's the Andrew Marr Show: "I think what is crucial is that we have at the next election a Conservative Party that will be offering people a renegotiation, a new settlement with Europe, looking to the future and then putting that to the British people in an in or out referendum.
"What the amendment possibly could do, as James Wharton himself who put in the referendum bill through Parliament has said, is it could actually jeopardise that bill."
A Number 10 spokesman said of Mr Afriyie's plan: "The PM will not let it stand."
Tory MP Mr Wharton, who is attempting to steer his leadership-backed legislation through Parliament, said Mr Afriyie's move would delay and even "kill" his private member's bill altogether.
He said: " This amendment would make it far more difficult to navigate the challenging procedural hurdles we need to overcome and I hope its sponsors might rethink their approach.
"We need to build as broad a base of support for the bill as we can if we are to get it through Parliament and the policy of a renegotiation, followed by an in/out referendum, is the right one to do that and the right one for the country.
"I hope MPs will decline to support it as the ultimate impact might well be to kill my bill, which would only help those who don't want any referendum at all."
The European Union (Referendum) Bill easily cleared its first Commons hurdle in July after Labour and the Liberal Democrats stayed away.
Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have dismissed the bill as a stunt designed to shore up the Prime Minister's position with his rank and file - pointing out that it has virtually no chance of becoming law.
In May, 115 Conservative MPs backed a rebel amendment to the Queen's Speech criticising the failure to include a referendum bill in the Government's legislative programme.
Mr Cameron said that was impossible because of being in coalition with the pro-European Lib Dems but has thrown his weight behind Mr Wharton's Bill.
Mr Afriyie said he would table an amendment bringing forward the referendum date to October 23, 2014.
"It's in our national interest to resolve this issue as soon as possible to create the certainty and stability our country needs for the future," he said.
"Only by setting an early date can we kick-start EU renegotiation talks and give the British people what they so clearly want - a say on our country's future with Europe.
"The political establishment are naturally hesitant but we have nothing to fear by giving people a chance to have their say, either way, on our future relationship with Europe."
Questioning Mr Cameron's tactics of promising a 2017 vote following a renegotiation of the UK's relationship with Brussels, he wrote: " The f act is, the British people are not convinced there will be a referendum at all if we wait until after the next general e lection.
"So many things can change. They don't understand why we can't have one right away - and that makes them suspicious.
"Many people think delaying the vote is just a tactic to allow all the political leaders to kick the can even further down the road."
He added: "In reality, the British people are unsure whether the Conservative leadership would be able to stick to its promise of holding a referendum after the election, especially if in coalition once again."
Even if the Tories did win in 2015 there would remain "uncertainty" over the implementation of the result of a referendum, he suggested.
"Many MPs from across all the main parties want an EU referendum in 2014. But for the Conservative Party, I believe the dangers of waiting are significant.
"Mainstream politicians continue to underestimate and dismiss the power and significance of populism - currently expressed in the form of Ukip votes.
"Because at the heart of a populist movement is a legitimate concern unacknowledged by the political establishment.
"By holding an early EU referendum, we would have recognised, embraced and addressed those concerns."
Senior Labour MP Tom Watson said he would vote in favour of a 2014 referendum.
"I don't want to add to the PM's panic but I will probably be supporting Adam Afriyie with his amendment," he told the BBC.
"There are a lot of people on both sides of the House who think we need clarity on this now.
"The country has asked for it for a long time. Business is saying there is a lot of uncertainty.
"Parties have got to draw up their manifestos for the 2015 general election and they will be very different depending on the outcome of a referendum."
Mr Watson - who was co-ordinating Labour's 2015 campaign before quitting the shadow cabinet over over the Falkirk selection row - said Opposition leader Ed Miliband had " kept his options open".
Labour's official line is that it would be "wrong now" to match the 2017 pledge but senior figures acknowledge there are disagreements within the shadow cabinet on the issue.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage told Marr: "The Conservative problem is that what Adam Afriyie has done is put his finger on the real problem, and that is four years ago Mr Cameron gave us a cast-iron guarantee of a referendum, this time last year he was saying no referendum, he's now saying there should be a referendum, and people aren't quite sure what to believe."
He said he would be " absolutely delighted" if the bid for a 2014 referendum succeeded - even if that hit electoral support for his party as securing a vote on withdrawal was his key aim.
Mr Farage said that he did not believe there would be any local deals between his party and eurosceptic Tory MPs in 2015.
He declined to be drawn on which seat he will fight at the general election.
Asked about media reports that he would target one of the two seats in Thanet, Kent, he said: "To be honest with you I was thinking about Folkestone.
"But it doesn't really matter: I'm not going to say where I'm standing, I'm not even going to think about where I'm standing.
"I am going to stand, but let's get the European elections out of the way first."
Speaking on Sky News' Murnaghan, Mr Afriyie said his amendment would strengthen Mr Cameron's hand as European leaders would believe they have to come forward with offers or changes to persuade the British people to stay part of the EU.
On his ambitions to become Conservative Party leader one day: "That's media tittle-tattle. What I am talking about is giving the people a say.
"Anyone under the age of 56 hasn't had their say on our membership of the European Union. In fact, nobody has had a say on our membership of the European Union because nobody has ever been asked.
"What I am saying is we should have that referendum in 2014 and over 50% of the population want that, 80% want the referendum, 80% of businesses as well want the certainty, so I think this is a good thing.
"And, as a backbencher, I've got to examine my conscience. I couldn't sit here quietly and not give Parliament, every MP to search their soul and decide do you they really want to have this referendum?"
Questioned if he would drop his amendment if Number 10 told him to drop the amendment, Mr Afriyie said: "It's a private members' bill, it's a backbencher's bill that enjoys the Prime Minister's support, I support the bill wholeheartedly too.
"We have a difference on timing and I think it's really important that the British public actually have in front of Parliament an option to bring that referendum forward, otherwise I think we are neglecting our duties."
Again questioned about his leadership ambitions, Mr Afriyie said: "I have no ambition whatsoever to be leader of the Conservative Party.
"I'm ambitious for the British people to make sure we have a government that actually works for us and we need to resolve the European Union."
Tory ex-defence secretary Liam Fox, a prominent figure on the right of the patry, urged the party to unite against the Afriyie amendment which he said was a "gift" to opponents of a referendum.
"Any attempt to amend EU Bill will be a gift to all those who want to deny the British people a vote," he wrote on Twitter.
"Tories must unite!".
There was a similar response from fiercely eurosceptic Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who said: "No eurosceptic should back Adam Afriyie's amendment, which would have the sole effect of jeopardising the passage of the referendum."
Mr Afriyie told BBC Radio 5 Live: "I'm not going to be popular in the short term.
"I think people will come round over the next few weeks and realise somebody has got to give this option to the British people."
He said it would be "absolutely weird" if Number 10 pulled the plug on the Bill "if the House of Commons overwhelmingly supported that the referendum should be in 2014".
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes - whose party opposes any in/out vote unless further powers are ceded to Brussels - said a 2014 referendum would be a "barmy" distraction.
"It would be barmy to do that," he told Sky News.
"His argument that it would strengthen the Prime Minister's hand - you make a judgement when you've had negotiations, not before, so it's illogical.
"But more importantly, we are trying to get Britain to a strong economic place, we are trying to make sure we concentrate on getting out of the recession. We are gradually doing that.
"Go to Scotland and see how much a referendum preoccupies everybody, rightfully because it's a very important issue. This would completely distract from everything we are trying to do about growth."
Labour Party vice-chair Michael Dugher said: "While millions of people worry about the cost of living crisis facing them right now, the Tories are back to obsessing about the European Union.
"We need a prime minister and a government that will make dealing with the cost of living the number one priority.
"Instead David Cameron is too weak and out of touch to stop this latest outbreak of Tory infighting."
Mr Afriyie's attempt to force a 2014 referendum appeared to have little support among prominent eurosceptics.
Conor Burns said he was surprised by the move when there was "overwhelming" support for Mr Wharton's Bill and the party had finally established a rare "unity and consensus" over Europe.
But he added that he was also against it because he "cannot be certain" of David Cameron securing an overall Conservative majority at the general election and it would pressure Labour to match the offer.
"As the election gets closer the pressure will mount on Ed Miliband to match David Cameron's pledge. It's already coming from sensible Labour heads," he wrote for the Specator magazine's Coffee House website.
"Such a promise from the two main parties would make the referendum guaranteed after 2015 regardless of the outcome of the election.
"After opposing European integration throughout my political life...I don't want us to throw it when I have a profound sense of a moment whose time is coming.
"If we can pass the Wharton Bill then a referendum will be a live issue at the next election and a vote will become inevitable. For that reason alone I will continue to walk through the lobbies in support of James's Bill - unamended and undiluted."
Andrea Leadsom, one of the founders of the backbench Fresh Start group which has published a manifesto for powers to be returned from Brussels, said an early vote would be "bad for Britain".
"Once in lifetime chance for real reform post Eurozone crisis but needs time to negotiate," she posted on Twitter.
"Don't blow it!"
Mark Spencer, another of the 116 Tories who rebelled over the failure to include referendum legislation in the Queen's Speech, said the amendment was "unhelpful".