* Don't drag Scotland out of EU, nationalists warn
* Eurosceptics: Funding could sink legitimacy of vote
* Cameron tries to avoid split in his Conservative Party
(Updates after vote)
By Kylie MacLellan and William James
LONDON, June 9 Lawmakers on Tuesday backed Prime
Minister David Cameron's plan for a referendum on Britain's EU
membership, but a heated debate highlighted passions that could
split his Conservative Party and re-open Scotland's bid for
Cameron, seeking to put an end to a decades-old rift within
his party over Britain's place in Europe, has promised to
negotiate a new settlement with Brussels and hold a referendum
by the end of 2017.
Voters will be asked: "Should the United Kingdom remain a
member of the European Union?", a choice of wording which allows
the "in" campaign to brand itself as "Yes".
Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to pass the EU Referendum
Bill, which sets out the rules for the plebiscite, at Tuesday's
second reading in parliament, with 544 votes in favour to 53
against. It has the support of the opposition Labour Party, but
in the debate, the government was assailed from all sides.
Cameron, who did not attend Tuesday's debate, says he wants
Britain to remain in a reformed EU and is confident he can get
changes which would allow him to recommend that to Britons. But
he has ruled nothing out if he does not secure reforms such as
tighter restrictions on EU migrants' access to welfare payments.
The issue of Europe is notorious for wreaking havoc within
Cameron's Conservatives, having contributed to the downfall of
his predecessors Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Conservative sceptics have so far been careful to say they
support Cameron's negotiations with Brussels. But several made
clear on Tuesday they fear a pro-EU government stitch-up and
were looking closely at the rules.
"Any attempt now to rig this vote now will simply amplify
the distrust the voters already have," Eurosceptic Conservative
lawmaker Bill Cash, who led a rebellion against Major over the
EU's Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s, told Reuters.
Cameron tripped up over Europe on the eve of the debate by
appearing to issue an ultimatum to his cabinet ministers to back
his position, which angered some Conservative heavyweights. He
later said he meant they must back his negotiations with Europe,
but had not yet determined whether he would insist they take a
particular line in the referendum itself.
Policy on Europe not only threatens the unity of Cameron's
Conservatives, but of the United Kingdom itself. The EU is more
popular in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than it is in
England, which accounts for 85 percent of the UK population.
Scottish nationalists say they could demand a re-run of last
year's failed independence vote if England votes to leave the EU
but Scotland votes to stay. They called for the rules of the
referendum to be changed so that each of the United Kingdom's
constituent nations must back a withdrawal for it to go ahead.
"It would be outrageous, disgraceful, undemocratic and
unacceptable to drag Scotland out of the European Union against
the wishes and will of the Scottish people," Alex Salmond,
former Scottish nationalist leader, told parliament.
Tuesday's second reading provided lawmakers their first
chance to debate the referendum bill and propose amendments
which can be added before a third, final reading.
Lawmakers rejected an amendment by the Scottish nationalists
which sought to block the bill. They and other pro-Europeans had
called for the right to vote to be extended to 16- and
17-year-olds. Cameron opposes extending the franchise to
teenagers, who are less likely than older voters to support his
While many Eurosceptic lawmakers praised the chance for
voters to express their view, they were angry about details in
the bill, including plans to scrap restrictions on government
campaign activity in the run up to the referendum.
Britain's election watchdog has said it is concerned about
the scrapping of a so-called "purdah" period, which bars the
government from publishing anything which could influence the
outcome, and warned it could see the government spend unlimited
amounts of public funds on promoting its preferred result.
"There is a risk that ... could give an unfair advantage to
one side of the argument," it said.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the government would
not use large amounts of public money to back any one side, but
lawmakers remained unconvinced.
"If the British people sense there is no fairness, that this
is being rigged against them ... that will go down extremely
badly," Conservative lawmaker and former minister Owen Paterson
said. "This incredibly important moment could be seen to be
(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Crispian Balmer)