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British PM faces down first Eurosceptic rebellion
[LONDON] Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday fended off a first parliamentary rebellion by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs wanting to limit the government's activity during Britain's EU membership referendum.
A group of 25 MPs from Mr Cameron's party voted against the government line on an amendment to the referendum bill going through parliament, fearing that the prime minister was trying to skew the vote for Britain to stay in Europe.
The number was lower than previous estimates of around 50 potential rebel Conservative MPs, although still enough to create problems for Mr Cameron's new government which only has a working majority of 16.
The vote was seen as a first chance since last month's general election for the Eurosceptics to make their mark on the debate ahead of the referendum, which Mr Cameron has said he will hold by the end of 2017.
The government in the end won Tuesday's parliamentary vote by 288 to 97, with the main opposition Labour party helping the government by abstaining.
The dispute hinged on the issue of government's activity in the month leading up to the referendum.
The government wants the standard "purdah" restrictions lifted, while the rebels wanted them reinstated.
In the standard 28-day "purdah" pre-election period, the government is prevented from announcing initiatives that could be seen as advantageous to itself in the forthcoming vote.
The rebels feared Mr Cameron, who has said he would campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed European Union, was trying to change those restrictions to his own advantage.
The government has outlined plans for a less stringent "code of conduct" for officials to abide by before the referendum.
"Doing a referendum in a manner which is unfair on the voters is a very, very retrograde step in the kind of democracy that we uphold," said Conservative MP Bill Cash, the rebellion's leader.
Europe minister David Lidington sought to reassure the Eurosceptics, saying: "It is vital that the British public and both sides in the referendum debate accept the referendum is being conducted fairly and that therefore everybody will feel they are able to accept the result.
"It is not our intention the government should be a lead campaigner in the referendum and it is right the House should seek reassurance from us on this point," he said.
The government had reached out to Eurosceptics by assuring them the referendum would not be held in May next year on the same day as regional elections in Scotland and Wales - a move that some said could have given a boost to the "Yes" vote.
The Conservative Party has been deeply divided over Europe for decades and several senior members have said they will campaign for a "No" vote that would mean Britain leaving the body it joined in 1973.