EU referendum bill storms through first Commons debate

Conservative MPs have revelled in four-and-a-half hours of eurosceptic-dominated debate – culminating in the EU referendum bill passing its second reading by 304 votes to zero.

The overwhelming majority came as Labour and Liberal Democrat whips allowed MPs to stay away from the Commons chamber for the Tory-backed private member's bill.

But a sizeable number of Labour eurosceptics joined the Conservatives in calling for a referendum, undermining Ed Miliband's authority on an already difficult day for the leader of the opposition.

Tory MPs had turned out in force to support the European Union (referendum) bill through its second reading, after their Liberal Democrat coalition partners refused to allow them to debate the bill during government time.

James Wharton won plaudits from both sides of the House for his opening speech in favour of the bill, which he said was needed because a decision had to be taken about Britain's future in Europe.

"I'm putting forward an argument we should trust the British people to make that decision," he told MPs.

It had initially been thought Lib Dem and Labour backbenchers could have combined in an unholy alliance to filibuster out the legislation.

Instead both parties are now looking to their peers in the Lords to prevent the legislation actually becoming law.

The Tories hope the row over the issue will draw attention to David Cameron's new EU policy, announced in January this year, of offering the British people an in-or-out referendum in the first half of the next parliament following a renegotiation of the UK's relationship with Brussels.

Conservative backbencher Edward Leigh told MPs: "When this bill is finally talked out on some dark rainy night… we have to go back to the government and say to our partners in coalition 'give us a government bill'.

"And if our partners refuse to give us that bill that is an excellent platform on which to fight a general election."

Labour and the Lib Dems' absence from today's debate was an attempt to distract from internal Lib-Lab divisions on whether or not Cameron's approach is the right one for Britain.

But Labour MPs including Kate Hoey, Keith Vaz and Frank Field queued up to support the bill and praise Wharton.

Field was even heckled from his own benches after beginning his speech offering praise to the Stockton South MP.

"That sort of intervention is pathetic," Field told Labour colleague Karl Turner.

"If we actually think we win elections by not recognising the truth and paying tribute to people, then I think one's time in politics is actually wasted."

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said Labour's official position was against an in-out referendum because the "arbitrary date" of 2017 is "unrelated to the timetable of likely treaty change" and because the prime minister's negotiating strategy is "unrealistic and uncertain".

He claimed the Tories were divided between "those seeking consent and those seeking exit", but foreign secretary William Hague responded with a mocking speech in which he observed: "Rarely in this House has a speech accusing others of causing uncertainty been so shrouded in uncertainty itself."

Wharton had confirmed he would take forward the bill, endorsed by the Conservative party leadership, after winning the private member's ballot contested by two-thirds of MPs.

The stroke of fate which brought him to the fore was the latest in a series of unlikely twists in his political career, which has also included giant penis statues, a boules pitch and handshakes in Sri Lanka.

Wharton narrowly avoided scuppering his bill's chances before it had even begun its passage through parliament, by inviting Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague to formally offer their support by adding their names to the bill.

Doing so would have made it a government bill which Lib Dem ministers could have rejected outright, preventing any further debate.

Speaker John Bercow was obliged to give a behind-closed-doors ruling making clear the prime minister's actions would have ruined the bill's 'private' status.

It is thought to be the first time a prime minister had sought to officially back a private member's bill in the history of parliament.