David Cameron said comments he’d made suggesting U.K. government ministers would have to support continued European Union membership were “misinterpreted,” after protests from lawmakers in his Conservative Party.
The prime minister got a taste of how his plan to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership will dominate the political agenda at the close of the Group of Seven summit at Schloss Elmau, Germany. All but one of the questions at his closing press conference were on issues of detail around Europe.
Cameron said Sunday that if he achieves his goal of renegotiating Britain’s EU membership, “then obviously that’s not something the government’s neutral about.” With other remarks, this was taken to signal that he would expect ministers in his government to campaign alongside him to keep Britain in the bloc in the referendum due by the end of 2017.
When reports of Cameron’s words appeared Monday morning, Tory lawmakers objected. A former party-leadership candidate, David Davis, told the BBC it would be a “rather unwise” position. After his office said the reports were wrong, Cameron himself weighed in.
“It is clear to me that what I said yesterday was misinterpreted,” the prime minister told reporters Monday afternoon. He refused to say what his position was, as the renegotiation hadn’t finished. “It would be wrong to answer hypothetical questions,” he said.
A ComRes poll for the Daily Mail newspaper released Monday found 51 percent of voters would back staying in the EU, with 33 percent wanting to leave. ComRes interviewed 1,000 adults May 29-31. It didn’t specify a margin of error.
The government clarification was welcomed by Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee that represents rank-and-file Conservative lawmakers.
“It’s common sense,” he said in a telephone interview. “When you’ve got something where you just can’t screw the lid down, it’s not a good idea to try.”
With his increasingly pro-EU line, Cameron already risks alienating those in the party who are implacably opposed to staying in Europe. On Sunday, a new group, Conservatives for Britain, said it was backed by more than 50 lawmakers who support taking Britain out of the EU.
Steve Baker, one of the group’s chairmen, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that its members want the U.K. Parliament to be able to set the level of contributions to the EU, to have the power to opt out of business regulation, to limit migration within the EU and negotiate trade treaties.
“We wish David Cameron every success,” Baker said. “But, unless senior EU officials awake to the possibility that one of the EU’s largest members is serious about a fundamental change in our relationship, our recommendation to British voters seems likely to be exit.”
Cameron refused to be drawn Sunday on what he hopes to achieve from his renegotiation. “I’m not giving running commentaries,” he said. “I’m not going to say it is going to look like this or that. I’m going to be very unhelpful. At the end, when I’ve got what I want, I’ll tell you about it.”
He also refused to be drawn on the timing of the vote, which he has promised will come before the end of 2017. Still, he rejected the advice of the Electoral Commission that it shouldn’t be held on the same day as other elections. Calling it for May 5 next year would mean it coincides with voting for legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the mayor of London.
“I think the British public is perfectly capable of going to a polling booth and making two important decisions rather than just one; I think the evidence has shown that,” Cameron said Sunday. “But what will determine the timing of the referendum is not the timing of other elections, it is the outcome of the negotiation.”