British Prime Minister David Cameron will refuse to back down in a showdown next week with rebel lawmakers who want a public vote on whether Britain should leave the European Union, ministers said on Sunday.
The Conservative leader, who opposes a referendum on Britain's EU membership, faces the biggest rebellion of his premiership on Monday when parliament votes on an issue that has caused deep divisions in his centre-right party for decades.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Cameron would stick to his decision to impose the toughest voting orders on Conservative members of parliament. Known as a "three-line whip", lawmakers who defy the instruction to back the government will be effectively expelled from the party.
"It is not government policy to have an in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union," Hammond told BBC television. "The three-line whip remains because the motion is contrary to government policy."
Cameron's supporters say the vote is a distraction and that rebels risk fuelling economic uncertainty at a time when Britain should be helping the European Union to fix a sovereign debt crisis.
While Cameron is all but certain to defeat the rebels in a vote that carries no legal weight, the showdown is seen as a test of his authority that risks raising tensions within his ruling coalition with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats.
'EURO ZONE IS PRIORITY'
Given Europe's economic problems, Cameron's ministers say now is not the time to resurrect a debate that helped to topple former prime minister, Conservative Margaret Thatcher, and dogged John Major's government.
"Right now, the immediate and urgent issue is sorting out the crisis in the euro zone," Hammond added. "Investment, job prospects, economic growth in Britain are all threatened by the current crisis."
Questions about Britain's ties with Europe have resurfaced in recent months, with eurosceptics on the right of Cameron's Conservatives keen to use the euro zone's financial crisis to renegotiate London's ties with the EU.
Cameron says it is in Britain's interests to stay inside Europe because it needs access to the single market, Britain's biggest trading partner. Britain's economy has stagnated for a year and households are being squeezed by rising unemployment, above-target inflation and weak wage growth.
Around 70 of the more than 300 Conservative lawmakers are expected to vote against Cameron on Monday. The Liberal Democrats and the main opposition Labour Party will tell members to vote with Cameron.
"We won't do the opportunistic thing. We'll do what's right for Britain. We will give a gold-plated guarantee to Mr Cameron that we will protect him against his own eurosceptics in the vote," Labour defence spokesman Jim Murphy told the BBC.
A poll for the Mail on Sunday newspaper found 61 percent of people wanted an EU referendum, while half wanted the government to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership to focus on trade. However, only 34 percent wanted to leave the EU, compared to 44 who wanted to stay and 22 percent who did not know. (editing by Elizabeth Piper)
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.