British Prime Minister David Cameron insists there is ‘no bad blood’ after 79 of his Conservative MPs defied his orders to vote in favour of a referendum on UK membership of the EU.
The government won the House of Commons vote late on Monday by 483 votes to 111 with support from the Liberal Democrats, the Tories’ euro-friendly junior coalition partners, and the main opposition Labour Party.
But in the biggest show of internal dissent in his 18 months in charge, the Tory eurosceptic wing ignored Cameron’s plea that it was the wrong time for a referendum because of the debt crisis engulfing the eurozone.
After helping orchestrate the largest ever Conservative rebellion over Europe, senior backbench MP Mark Pritchard insisted it would become “more rather than less of an issue” in the months to come.
However, Cameron played down suggestions of lasting damage to his party, which suffered bitter divisions over Europe in the 1990s.
“This has always been a difficult issue for my party, it always will be, but the important thing is to do the right thing for the country,” he said, arguing that now was not the right time to have a vote on EU membership.
“I understand why people feel strongly and we will go forward together and tackle the difficult decisions that the country face.
“But you have to do the right thing and give a lead in politics and that was what yesterday was about.”
Cameron added: “What I would say from last night is there’s no bad blood, there’s no rancour, no bitterness.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband described the result as “a humiliation” for Cameron.
The vote took place against a backdrop of intense negotiations on the eurozone debt crisis, which prompted French President Nicolas Sarkozy to criticise Cameron for interfering during a stormy Brussels summit on Sunday.
Cameron returns for a European Council meeting on Wednesday, the same day as crunch eurozone talks during which the 17 countries in the single currency hope to thrash out a plan to boost confidence after months of uncertainty.
Official figures show 79 of the Conservative party’s 305 MPs voted against the government on Monday night with two abstaining, in the biggest rebellion over Europe in the history of the party of Margaret Thatcher.
In 1993, 41 MPs defied then-leader John Major over the Maastricht treaty.
Members who defied the three-line whip, the strictest party device used in parliament, will face internal disciplinary action, and two ministerial aides, Adam Holloway and Stewart Jackson, have already lost their jobs.
Although the vote was not legally binding, polls suggest the rebels had the public on their side.
A ComRes survey on Monday revealed that 68 per cent of Britons support a national vote on EU membership, while an ICM poll published on Tuesday found 49 per cent want to leave Europe, compared to 41 per cent who want to stay.
Opening the debate on Monday, Cameron said he sympathised with those who wanted a new relationship with Brussels and promised reform.
But he said: “It’s not the right time, at this moment of economic crisis, to launch legislation that includes an in-out referendum. When your neighbour’s house is on fire, your first impulse should be to help him put out the flames.”
The proposed referendum would have asked the British public if they wanted to remain in the EU, leave or renegotiate membership, in the first such vote since 1975.