Tories are celebrating after a North East MP’s Bill demanding a referendum on leaving the EU was unanimously approved by the House of Commons.
And Labour leader Ed Miliband was left trying to explain how his party could say it opposes the measure when not a single Labour MP voted against it.
But the European Union (Referendum) Bill, put to the Commons by Stockton MP James Wharton (Con), will have no impact on the UK’s relationship with the EU, despite receiving its second reading.
It states that the UK must hold a referendum before December 31, 2017, posing the question: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
But even if the Bill does eventually become law, which is far from certain, Parliament could simply decide to repeal it after the next election.
The question of whether a referendum takes place will be decided by MPs elected in 2015, who will be free to ignore yesterday’s vote.
Nonetheless, Mr Wharton’s Bill was personally backed by the Prime Minister, who was in the Chamber to hear the backbench MP speak, alongside Chancellor George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague. Some Labour MPs demanded to know why Mr Cameron wasn’t proposing the legislation himself. The answer, as they knew, was that his Lib Dem coalition partners oppose a referendum, making it impossible for the Prime Minister to sponsor the Bill.
Another question pointedly asked by Labour was why a Tory backbencher felt the need to propose the Bill when Mr Cameron had already said the promise of a referendum would be in the Conservative Party’s next General Election manifesto.
It suggested Mr Cameron’s backbenchers didn’t trust him to keep his word, Labour said.
But the opposition was also in an awkward situation. Labour’s official policy was to oppose the Bill, but party leader Ed Miliband had also instructed his MPs to abstain on the vote.
Hence, it was approved by 304 votes in favour and zero against, despite a number of Labour MPs taking part in the debate, including Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary.
Mr Wharton, thrust into the spotlight, delivered a speech which was praised even by Labour MPs.
He said: “This Bill is about making good the central promise of our democracy: that we are the servants of the people and not their masters.
“We want to give the people a voice. I was born in Stockton-on-Tees, a town that I am now proud to represent in this place.”
He added: ”I am proud to represent the people of Stockton in this matter, but also the people of this country as a whole.
“It is about time we gave those millions of British people who want a say the chance to do so – from Stockton and beyond.
“This Bill would legislate for that and give them confidence that they will get their say and that it will be at the right time and in the right way. We have a chance to give the British people a voice through this Bill.” Mr Hague told the Commons he personally would vote to stay in the EU in a referendum, but backed the Bill because it showed “the Conservative party is ready to trust the voters.”
Mr Alexander told the Commons: “We have maintained our position that any judgment in relation to an in-out referendum has to be based on the national interest. Our judgment is that the national interest is not served by this Bill, and that is why we do not support it.”