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Tory MP Adam Afriyie Wants Early EU Referendum
The Conservative MP challenging the Prime Minister by trying to force an early EU referendum has said a vote before the next General Election is "in the interest of the British people".
Adam Afriyie wants a Commons vote on the whether Britain should leave the European Union next year - a move that has plunged the Tories into fresh turmoil over Europe.
The rebel millionaire MP, who earlier this year was accused of plotting to oust David Cameron, said he would table an amendment to the Bill before Parliament which proposes a referendum in 2017.
Mr Afriyie claims voters do not trust the Prime Minister to deliver on his pledge to hold a referendum then and that delaying until then will build support for the UK Independence Party.
He told Sky's Murnaghan programme said an early referendum would strengthen Mr Cameron's hand as European leaders would believe they have to come forward with offers or changes to persuade the British people to stay part of the EU.
The MP insisted he was loyal to the Prime Minister and had "no ambition whatsoever to lead the Conservative Party" - reports suggesting otherwise he dismissed as "media tittle tattle".
And he refused to be drawn on whether he disagreed with the PM's strategy on Europe. "I am just keen to have the referendum sooner rather than later because I think it will bring certainty to our future," he said.
"There is widespread support that there needs to be a referendum this side of the election," he added, asserting that 80% of the UK population and businesses wanted a vote before 2015.
His move is reported to have created panic in Number 10 on Friday, with allies of Mr Cameron insisting it would not be allowed to pass "in any circumstances". A spokesman added: "The PM will not let it stand."
Mr Afriyie's amendment will call for an "in-out" EU referendum on October 23, 2014, the anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein in the Second World War. It is likely to be debated when the 2017 referendum Bill returns to the Commons on November 8.
Writing in the Mail On Sunday, Mr Afriyie said: "The fact is, the British people are not convinced there will be a referendum at all if we wait until after the next General Election.
"So many things can change. They don't understand why we can't have one right away - and that makes them suspicious.
"Many people think delaying the vote is just a tactic to allow all the political leaders to kick the can even further down the road."
Downing Street hit back by releasing a statement by James Wharton, the loyalist Tory MP whose private member's Bill proposing a 2017 referendum is supported by the Conservative Party leadership.
He said that every additional amendment would make it harder for the Bill to pass, and warned: "The ultimate impact might be to kill my Bill."
Mr Wharton told Sky News: "The Prime Minister has made a very clear pledge that if the Conservatives are successful, if he is prime minister, there will be a referendum by 2017.
"I think it is the right policy to try to get a better deal from Europe and then whatever that deal looks like to put it to the British people, but the Bill that I am bringing forward will enshrine that process in law.
"That's my key aim, my priority is getting that Bill through its parliamentary stages now. That's a difficult process. It's a private member's Bill and they are fragile things, and so I hope that colleagues will refrain from doing anything that will make its journey more difficult."
He added: "This amendment, whilst it may be superficially attractive to some people, I don't think is actually helpful, and I hope that it won't get pushed through to a vote, because were it to pass, or even were it just to be debated, because of the time it would take it will significantly impede the progress of my Bill, and it is the Bill that will deliver the referendum that we really do need."
Mr Wharton's European Union (Referendum) Bill was passed without opposition in the Commons in July after Labour and the Liberal Democrats stayed away from the vote.
But many Tory MPs are expected to be attracted by Mr Afriyie's amendment. In May, 115 Conservative MPs backed a rebel amendment to the Queen's Speech criticising the failure to include a referendum bill in the Government's legislative programme.
In his Mail On Sunday article, Mr Afriyie said: "Only by setting an early date can we kick-start EU renegotiation talks and give the British people what they so clearly want - a say on our country's future with Europe.
And openly challenging Mr Cameron, he added: "In reality, the British people are unsure whether the Conservative leadership would be able to stick to its promise of holding a referendum after the election, especially if in coalition once again."