Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson called for the U.K. to leave the European Union, saying it is no longer in the country’s economic interest to remain in the bloc.
Lawson said he would vote for Britain’s exit in a referendum that may be held in 2017, arguing that the costs of remaining part of the union outweigh the “transitional” costs of leaving. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the former chancellor was rehearsing arguments that are part of an “anguished debate” in the Conservative Party.
“The heart of the matter is that the very nature of the European Union and of this country’s relationship with it had fundamentally changed after the coming into being of the European monetary union and the creation of the euro zone, of which, quite rightly, we are not part,” Lawson, who was chancellor from 1983 to 1989 under Margaret Thatcher, wrote in an article published in the Times newspaper in London today. “That is why, while I voted ‘in’ in 1975, I shall be voting ‘out’ in 2017.”
Lawson, a lawmaker in the upper unelected chamber of Parliament, is the most senior Conservative to say Britain should leave the EU. His intervention comes days after the party lost seats in local elections to the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigns for Britain to pull out of the 27-nation bloc.
Lawson compared Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise of a plebiscite by late 2017 on whether to remain in the EU on new terms or leave with Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on membership of the then European Economic Community. He said any changes secured by Cameron with the EU would be “inconsequential.” Cameron says he will argue for Britain to stay inside the EU.
“The prime minister has set out his position very clearly,” his spokesman, Christian Cubitt, told reporters today. “He’s going out there to negotiate the best possible deal for the U.K.”
Clegg, whose Liberal Democrat party is the junior partner in the governing coalition, told BBC Radio 4 that British exit from the EU would cost 3 million jobs and lead to a loss of influence in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo.
“That’s poppycock,” Lawson told the BBC’s “World At One” today. “I don’t think Nick Clegg, who’s a charming young man, has ever purported to know anything about economics.”
Another Liberal Democrat minister, Business Secretary Vince Cable, questioned how the U.K. would negotiate free-trade agreements outside the EU.
“Nigel Lawson’s a terribly clever guy, but I think he’s often wrong on the big issues like climate change and this,” Cable told the BBC. “If you decide to leave the European Union, what are you going to negotiate with? You would need to have some agreement on the continuation of the single market. I’m not sure how we would secure that.”
Peter Kellner, president of polling company YouGov Plc, said an April 21-22 survey showed 43 percent of voters want to leave the EU compared with 35 percent who say the U.K. should stay in. When asked whether the U.K. should stay in under new terms, a majority favors remaining part of the bloc.
Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership if the Tories are re-elected in the 2015 general election has earned rebukes from across Europe and within his own coalition for creating greater uncertainty at a time of economic turmoil.