U.K. Conservative Party lawmakers, racked by infighting for decades over the European Union, welcomed Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan to renegotiate ties, with one saying nearly all of them would be happy.
“We now have a position that 99 percent of the party would be happy to endorse,” Malcolm Rifkind, who served as foreign secretary in John Major’s government in the 1990s and describes himself as a “moderate euroskeptic,” said in a telephone interview. “It was a breath of fresh air.”
Cameron pledged a referendum today in a speech at Bloomberg LP’s European headquarters in London on whether Britain should leave the European Union or stay in, allowing U.K. voters to decide on breaking up the 27-nation bloc.
Describing British backing for the status quo in Europe as “wafer thin,” the premier said he would put the question to a popular vote by the end of 2017 if re-elected in two years and once he has negotiated a return of some powers to the U.K. He said that he wants the U.K. to remain in the EU.
Tory lawmakers said Cameron’s plan gives them something concrete to offer voters in the run-up to the election in 2015.
“It was a game-changer, it’s fantastic news,” Mark Reckless, who led a Conservative rebellion over the EU budget last year, said in an interview. “If you believe in an independent Britain, a democratic Britain, vote for a Conservative government that will give you a choice.”
Others, though, expressed concern about the reaction from other European leaders.
“I hope there is not a knee-jerk reaction across Europe that Britain is being awkward,” Sarah Wollaston, a lawmaker who argues Britain should stay inside a reconfigured EU, said in an interview. “I agreed with the point about it being heretical to question Britain’s relationship with Europe. I want to be part of Europe but just not on the current terms.”
Asked if the speech could end infighting among the Tories, she replied, “I think it will be a unifying speech and struck just the right note.”
Tory lawmaker Bernard Jenkin said in an interview the question is “whether our European partners will allow us to pick and choose within the existing treaties or say whether they will say ’no actually what you want is a new treaty relationship but not as signatory of the exiting EU treaties.’ And that raises the question of whether we can stay in the single market or whether we are going to have a free-trade relationship.”
‘Outrage and Contempt’
He said there would be a “mixture of outrage and contempt for the British position” across other EU nations.
Cameron was responding to pressure from Tory lawmakers for looser ties with the EU or an outright departure from the union. Divisions on Europe racked Cameron’s Tory predecessors, Major and Margaret Thatcher, and contributed to the end of both their political careers.
Tory lawmakers cheered and waved paper agendas as Cameron came into the House of Commons for his weekly question-and-answer session today.
“The reason people behind him are cheering is not because they want to vote yes in a referendum, they want to vote no,” opposition Labour Party Ed Miliband told lawmakers. “He’s been driven to it not by the national interest but dragged to it by his party.” He said Labour doesn’t want an “in-out” referendum.
“The question isn’t whether this satisfies Tory euroskeptics, it’s whether it will satisfy enough of them to get him through this Parliament and then whatever negotiation process he can persuade other European leaders into,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, said in an interview. “I suspect that it will.”
Tories “who want to leave the EU will of course worry that he’s playing a trick on them by holding a referendum on a supposedly renegotiated basis for Britain’s membership,” Bale said. “But he’s given them a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do what they desperately want to do: give the electorate a chance to decide whether they want in or out. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good -- enough of them will go for it.”
Cameron’s Conservative lawmakers are under pressure from the United Kingdom Independence Party, which campaigns for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. A poll by YouGov Plc in today’s Sun newspaper showed UKIP with 10 percent support, just behind the Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s coalition partners at 12 percent.
The Tories had 31 percent support in the YouGov poll, 10 points behind Labour. YouGov interviewed 2,119 adults Jan. 21-22 and didn’t specify a margin of error.
“Whilst UKIP regards today’s speech as its greatest achievement to date, the real work for our party has only just begun,” leader Nigel Farage said in an e-mail.
“The bulk of Tories who are euroskeptic but not obsessed with the issue will be satisfied: the referendum will, they think, spike UKIP’s guns, and will put the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats in a difficult position,” Bale said.
“It will also put the issue on the backburner until after the election, leaving the government free to focus on the things that will most matter to winning that election,” he said. “Getting the economy right, hitting the government’s targets on immigration and making sure that deficit reduction doesn’t impact too seriously on cherished public services, most obviously the National Health Service.”
Cameron set out a moderate, statesmanlike approach to the Europe question,” Tory lawmaker Dominic Raab said in an interview. “It rightly focused on strategy over tactics. The ball is now in the EU’s court. If we only get crumbs from renegotiation, it would be for the British people to decide in 2017 whether we stay in.”
Even so, one leading Tory euroskeptic said he’s not sure Cameron can achieve enough in renegotiations to satisfy him.
“If we’re talking about the current deal with a couple of repatriations, basically staying where we are now with an opt-out from the working week, I would be on the other side,” Daniel Hannan, a member of the European Parliament, said in an interview after attending Cameron’s speech.
Tory lawmaker Stewart Jackson took to Twitter Inc.’s social networking site to say he was fired as a ministerial aide “for advocating an in/out EU referendum in 2011 but it’s now official party policy. That’s politics folks.”