LONDON Prime Minister David Cameron clashed with his coalition partners over the European Union on Monday after they accused him of endangering an economic recovery by promising a vote on Britain's 40-year membership of the bloc.
Business Secretary Vince Cable, one of the most senior members of the pro-EU Lib Dems, said Cameron's pledge of an in/out referendum was a "serious distraction" for a country still healing after the global financial crisis.
"We are recovering from the worst economic crisis for the best part of a century," Cable told a meeting organised by Business for New Europe, a lobby group that supports Britain's continued EU membership.
"The last thing we need now is massive levels of uncertainty in the business community."
In a speech in January that upset European allies, Cameron promised to renegotiate Britain's EU ties and hold a referendum on its membership of the bloc by the end of 2017.
After his pledge failed to halt the rise of the anti-EU UK Independence Party or silence vociferous eurosceptics within his Conservatives, Cameron threw his support behind a legal guarantee of a referendum. Parliament will debate and vote on the draft referendum bill on Friday.
Arguments over Britain's ties with Europe have plagued the Conservatives for decades and played a part in the downfall of two of Cameron's predecessors, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
In a public falling out over the Europe vote, the Lib Dems dismissed the Conservative bill as a "parliamentary stunt" and said its members would abstain on Friday.
"We're not going to waste any of our time helping the Conservatives indulge in their own internal feuds," leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said at the first of what he said would be monthly news conferences before the 2015 election.
The Labour Party, which has a 10-point poll lead, called the draft bill a gimmick and told its MPs to abstain.
Cameron said he would support the bill and suggested other party leaders should "get off the fence" and tell voters where they stand on a referendum.
Conservative James Wharton, who has championed the draft bill, said the next government could repeal the referendum law.
"We've never made any secret of the fact that parliament can't bind its successor," Wharton told a news conference. "A future parliament could repeal it."
His admission could undermine Cameron's attempts to appease rebellious anti-EU Conservatives and win back voters lost to UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the EU. UKIP says Cameron can't be trusted to deliver on his promise of a referendum.
The possibility of Britain turning its back on its biggest trading partner is growing, fuelled by eurosceptics who see it as a wasteful, bureaucratic and meddlesome threat to the country's sovereignty.
Polls show Britons are divided on whether to stay in the EU, with slightly more favouring an exit but many undecided.
(Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Angus MacSwan)