Cameron Rebukes Tory Lawmakers as Party Debates EU Exit

British Prime Minister David Cameron told his Conservative Party to get behind his political program before the 2015 election, rebuking about 100 members who wrote a letter demanding greater distance from the European Union.

At a packed 20-minute private meeting with Tory lawmakers in Parliament in London late yesterday, Cameron told them to speak directly to him about disagreements instead of writing public letters of protest as they did three days ago, according to two people present who asked not to be identified.

A year after promising a referendum in 2017 on EU membership to placate euroskeptics in his party, Cameron is coming under pressure to cede more ground. Meanwhile, a business leader warned that uncertainty in the wake of his speech at the office of Bloomberg LP in London in January last year over the U.K.’s place in the EU is damaging confidence.

“What the Conservative Party has got to do is start putting flesh on the Bloomberg speech, which was a very good speech in the prime minister’s renunciation of ever-closer union,” Tory lawmaker Gerald Howarth, a former minister, said in a telephone interview last night. “Those negotiations need to be under way very quickly now.”

Tory lawmakers who back his plan to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU began a two-day conference in London today to discuss how to achieve change organized by the Fresh Start group. Cameron wants to put continued EU membership to a referendum in late 2017 if he’s re-elected next year.

Veto Call

“Unless that renegotiation results in substantial change in Britain’s relationship I don’t think he will be able to carry the country with him,” said Howarth, a signatory to the letter published in the Sunday Telegraph Jan. 12. That letter called for a parliamentary veto over all EU regulations, something incompatible with Britain’s current membership.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne addressed the conference today, setting out Cameron’s position of renegotiating Britain’s position in the 28-member-nation bloc and the planned referendum timeline while seeking to reassure investors concerned about a possible exit.

“The biggest economic risk facing Europe doesn’t come from those who want reform and renegotiation, it comes from a failure to reform and renegotiate,” he said. “Our determination is clear: to deliver the reform, and then let the people decide.”

Osborne argued that the bloc needs to regenerate as the crisis that engulfed the region has “dramatically” accelerated the shift of economic influence toward countries such as India and China.

‘Simple Choice’

“It is time to change the EU and to change Britain’s relationship with it,” the chancellor said. “There is a simple choice for Europe: reform or decline.”

He told the conference that “a country of the size and reach of the U.K. leaving would be very bad for the whole of the European Union” and argued that Germany understands more than other euro-area countries that “there needs to be treaty change to put the euro zone on a firmer foundation.”

Tory lawmakers attending the Fresh Start conference were dismissive of the calls for more action from Cameron.

“I’ve seen a number of letters to prime ministers for all sorts of reasons,” Tim Loughton told a news conference. “That letter is something of a sideshow.”

Priti Patel said the conference was about “putting out the hand of friendship” to Europe. “It’s incumbent on British politicians to engage in that.”

‘Sword of Damocles’

Yesterday, the head of the City of London authority said the threat of U.K. exit from the EU is a “sword of Damocles” creating uncertainty for business.

Fiona Woolf, the lord mayor of the capital’s financial district, used an interview to call for Britain to be at the heart of a more competitive EU, saying London “values being the gateway to the single market.”

At last night’s meeting between Cameron and his party, Simon Kirby, who represents the district of Brighton Kemptown on England’s south coast, told his fellow lawmakers how difficult it was to campaign in a closely fought seat when some of them kept undermining the party’s public message with disputes. Cameron said he agreed, and urged lawmakers to stay focused.

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