Conservative MPs look set to be given a free vote on a Commons motion opposing votes for prisoners.
The motion, tabled by Tory former shadow home secretary David Davis and Labour’s former Justice Secretary Jack Straw, is due for debate next Thursday and is expected to receive support from MPs of all parties.
If he attempts to impose a whip on Tory backbenchers, David Cameron may face his biggest rebellion since becoming Prime Minister.
Asked whether the PM would instead allow backbenchers to vote according to their consciences, Mr Cameron’s spokesman told reporters: “That would certainly be consistent with what we have been saying about the House expressing a view and us listening to that view. We will take that into account when we think about what we do next.”
The Government is currently proposing to allow the vote to all inmates serving less than four years, in response to a European Court of Human Rights ruling which could otherwise open up the floodgates to compensation claims totalling millions of pounds.
But the move – which Mr Cameron said made him feel “physically ill” – has been met by stiff opposition from some MPs, and there have been indications that the vote may be restricted to those serving a year or less.
The motion tabled by Mr Davis and Mr Straw states that the decision on prisoners’ votes should be one for democratically elected lawmakers and states that “no sentenced prisoner” should be granted the vote except those jailed for debt default or contempt of court.
The result of next Thursday’s division will not tie the Government’s hands.
But victory for the Davis-Straw motion would put enormous pressure on ministers to water down their proposals, which are expected to be put to the Commons before the summer recess.