UK PM David Cameron loses lower house vote on EU referendum rules

British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) exits 10 Downing Street in central London on Sept 7, 2015.
British Prime Minister David Cameron (left) exits 10 Downing Street in central London on Sept 7, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered an embarrassing defeat in Parliament on Monday (Sept 7) over how the referendum he has called on leaving the European Union will be conducted.

While the defeat in the House of Commons was on a technicality, it highlights the struggle Mr Cameron faces to keep eurosceptic rebels in his own centre-right Conservative Party in line before the vote, due by the end of 2017.

It was the PM's first defeat in the Commons, where he has a majority of only 16 seats, since he won Britain's general election in May.

The government had wanted to water down the usual rules on so-called "purdah", under which ministers are banned from making any announcements which could affect the result of the vote for the last 28 days of a referendum or election campaign.

But the normal rules will now be applied after the government's plans were defeated by 312 to 285 votes. Thirty-seven Conservatives rebelled against Mr Cameron.

The Prime Minister wants Britain to remain part of the EU as long as he can secure reforms on issues such as making it harder for migrants from the bloc to access benefits and dropping the EU's commitment to ever-closer union.

Suspicions are growing among some MPs who oppose the EU that he will be content to secure cosmetic changes to Britain's relationship with Europe ahead of the vote, rather than the deep-seated changes they want.

'FAST AND LOOSE' WITH RULES?

In Monday's vote, eurosceptics teamed up with MPs from the main opposition Labour party and the Scottish National Party to vote down the move, which they saw as a key test of the government's willingness to address their concerns.

Leading eurosceptic Bernard Jenkin summed up the concerns of many by saying: "Ministers want to use their private offices to organise their speaking tours, they want to use their special advisers who are paid for by the taxpayer to campaign on the referendum. This is not an acceptable use of public money."

Labour's foreign affairs spokesman Hilary Benn said Mr Cameron had suffered a "humiliating defeat".

"The government should never have rushed through its flawed plans to play fast and loose with the rules on the referendum," he added.

Monday's late night sitting was the last day of debate in the Commons on the European Union Referendum Bill, which lays out the rules under which the vote will be conducted.

It also emerged during the debate that ministers will now have to give four months' notice of the date of the referendum, giving both sides time to campaign, rather than calling a snap vote.

The Bill now goes to the House of Lords, the upper legislative chamber of Parliament, for further debate before it can become law.

Eurosceptics received another boost on Sunday when, for the first time, an opinion poll suggested that more Britons want to leave the EU than want to stay.

Forty-three per cent of respondents said they would vote to leave, 40 per cent would vote to stay and 17 per cent are undecided, according to the poll by Survation for the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

Technical talks are under way in Brussels to explore what reforms could be made to Britain's relationship with the EU ahead of the vote, which is increasingly expected to be held next year.