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Conservative Backbenchers Challenge Cameron on EU Referendum

A nonbinding resolution on an EU referendum has become a test of David Cameron's leadership over his party.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 10/25/2011, 11:11 AM

British Prime Minister David Cameron  faced a leadership test on Monday when a nonbinding resolution calling for a referendum on continued British membership in the European Union was put to a vote.

The motion proposed a referendum which offers three options: maintaining the status quo, refocusing the terms of Britain's involvement in Europe on "a relationship based on trade and cooperation" or leaving the EU altogether.

Cameron opposed the resolution, imposed party discipline and tried to sidetrack it with a competing resolution. Nevertheless 80 Conservative members ignored the leadership's wishes and threats and voted for a referendum.

Part of the revolt has been stoked by disgruntlement of backbenchers who were passed over for cabinet positions by Cameron. This then represents payback.

Another political consideration is the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries that may force some Conservative Party MPs to compete with each other. Given the Euroskeptic bent of most conservative rank-and-file, defying the Prime Minister over Europe may actually help ensure an MP's political survival.

However, the issue of the referendum is a sore one within the part.  It was the Prime Minister himself who as leader of the opposition in 2007 promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after Prime Minister Tony Blair had reneged on his party's pledge prior to the 2005 elections. By making the issue into a test of strength, the Prime Minister now has to contend with the resignation of some junior ministers and a bloc of embittered MPs.

David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne may also have been a bit too smart for their own good by reversing Britain's position on greater centralization within the European Union.

The new strategy works as follows: Britain would allow the countries in the euro zone to centralize finances, in the expectation that this would reestablish credibility for the euro. In return Britain would be able to retrieve some of the powers that it had surrendered to Brussels.

The critics fear that a 17 country strong euro block within the European Union would have an automatic majority and would employ this majority to impose policies detrimental or opposed to British positions. Britain, they claim,  would not get the promised quid pro quo in return for its acquiescence, but would find itself in a more difficult situation than it is now.