Foreign Secretary William Hague has urged the Commons to reject a bid to hold an in or out referendum on Europe, telling MPs that "now is not the right time."
Mr Hague was speaking during a backbench business debate on a motion tabled by Conservative MP David Nuttall calling for a national poll on the UK's relationship with Brussels.
It says the referendum should be held by May 2013 and should contain three options for the British public to consider: keeping the status quo, leaving the EU, or reforming the terms of the UK's membership of the union.
Addressing the Commons on 24 October 2011 Mr Hague, a Eurosceptic member of the Cabinet, admitted the issue came at "a critical time in European affairs", but told MPs: "Tonight's proposition is the wrong one at the wrong time."
He said the British public wanted to know that no more powers would be handed over to Brussels "without their explicit consent", adding that the government had already legislated so any further planned transfer of powers to the EU would spark a referendum.
Mr Nuttall, opening the debate, dismissed the argument that now was not the time for a referendum, saying: "Even if the motion is passed today, a referendum is still likely to be years away."
He claimed people were becoming "increasingly concerned" about Britain's relationship with the EU because of a "growing sense that this country, indeed this Parliament, is becoming ever more impotent".
Moreover, the British public were "saddened and disillusioned" at being "fobbed off" by the "political elite who always seem to stop them having their say", he argued.
Appealing for support for his motion Mr Nuttall told MPs it was "time to start the process of consulting the British people once more". But he acknowledged it was unlikely to pass because of the three-line whip imposed by Conservative high-command - a move which frustrated many Conservative backbenchers.
Labour's position on the referendum was set out by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander.
Mr Alexander said it was a time of "great peril and great uncertainty" for British and European economies and argued it was not in Britain's interest to spend "the coming months and years debating the case for Britain leaving the world's largest single market".
He said the debate, which was brought forward to allow David Cameron and Mr Hague to attend, had "already revealed ... the scale of division" in the Conservative party.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes said a referendum would be a "distraction" from the issues facing the country, such as how to get the economy growing again.
part two of the EU membership referendum debate.