The battle to preserve Britain’s opt-out from controversial European legislation barring employees from working more than 48 hours a week is being led by a West Midlands Tory MEP.

Philip Bushill-Matthews is supporting the British government’s attempts to retain the UK opt-out from the EU Working Time Directive – while opposition in Brussels is being led by a Labour politician.

It means he is in the unusual position of fighting to support the Labour Government, while many of Labour’s own MEPs are opposing it.

The directive, introduced into British law in 1998, is designed to prevent staff being pressured into working long hours by their employers. The opt-out, which applies to a number of countries including the UK, means that workers can enter into voluntary agreements allowing them to work longer hours if they wish.

Now, MEPs from across the European Union are calling for the opt-out to be abolished, partly at the prompting of trade unions.

The campaign to scrap it is led by Stephen Hughes, Labour MEP for the North East region, who acts as co-ordinator on employment issues for the 200-strong Party of European Socialists in the European Parliament, which includes the Labour group in Brussels.

Leading the campaign to keep it is Mr Bushill-Matthews, a former leader of the Conservative group in Brussels. Tories support the opt-out, which was first agreed when former Conservative Prime Minister John Major led the UK.

Mr Bushill-Matthews said: “It is bizarre that on this issue of such importance to the UK, the two leading EU protagonists are not only both from the UK but are taking opposite positions.

“The further irony is that as a Conservative I am supporting the Labour government line. I have had the UK government minister in my office in Brussels ringing me up, seeking reassurance from me as a Conservative that we have enough colleagues from other countries to win the day, because they cannot count on their own people.”

But not every Labour MEP is rebelling. West Midlands MEP Michael Cashman (Lab) said he was supporting the government in its view that Britain should keep the opt-out.