LONDON — After being berated by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France at a rancorous European summit meeting over the weekend, Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday faced an all-out rebellion from members of his own party over whether Britain should even be part of the European Union.
Defying orders from the government, legislator after legislator from Cameron’s Conservatives rose in Parliament to fulminate against his European policy, saying he had done nothing to stop the EU from siphoning money, sovereignty and authority from Britain.
At issue was a motion calling for a referendum on whether Britain should withdraw from or renegotiate its relationship with the European Union.
The government opposed the motion, saying that it had to devote attention to sorting out its own economic crisis right now and that, in any case, leaving the European Union was not a reasonable option.
Throughout the day, Cameron’s aides telephoned Conservative members who oppose membership in the union, the so-called Euroskeptics, warning that the party would look unkindly on any signs of disloyalty. But dozens of angry members turned out for the debate anyway.
David Nuttall, the Conservative member of Parliament who introduced the measure, gave voice to widespread public concern that the European Union was running amok, sucking power and money from Britain and drowning British business in regulations and bureaucracy.
Nuttall said it was as if Britain had boarded a train that had suddenly begun “careering off at high speed,” even while adding on new cars.
“You are locked in and have no way of getting off,” he told the House of Commons.
“Worse still, the longer you are on the train the more the fare goes up, but there is nothing you can do about it.”
After a debate that lasted late into the evening, the motion was rejected on a vote of 483-111. The leaders of all three parties — the Conservatives; the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led coalition government; and the Labour opposition — had told their backbenchers to vote against the measure, giving no chance of its passing. But the exercise exposed a potentially lethal schism within Conservative ranks.
Late in the afternoon, Adam Holloway, a Conservative member of Parliament, said he was resigning from his post as an aide to the minister for Europe, David Lidiment, because he had opposed the government’s stance on the referendum measure. “I’m really staggered that loyal people like me have actually been put in this position,” he said. “If Britain’s future as an independent country is not a proper matter for a referendum, then I have absolutely no idea what is.”