EU referendum: the gloves are off as Tory rift widens
EU referendum: the gloves are off as Tory rift widens
Alliance of 40 backbenchers challenge David Cameron
By Tim Ross, Senior Political Correspondent10:01PM GMT 23 Jan 2016
The Tory truce over Europe began to crumble on Saturday as David Cameron faced an angry backlash from MPs over his attitude to his party in the referendum campaign.
An alliance of 40 Conservatives wrote to the Prime Minister requesting a meeting to discuss concerns that he will fail to restore Britain’s “sovereignty” over setting tax rates and laws.
They fear he is not asking for sufficiently radical changes to EU membership and want him to be more ambitious in his negotiations to wrest back powers. Mr Cameron rejected the request to meet his MPs, who were said to be backed by 10 Government ministers and aides, sparking a furious response on Saturday night.
Senior Tories accused him of reviving his arrogant “Flashman” persona and “ignoring” the concerns of Eurosceptics who believe he is using the Government’s resources against them.
One senior MP said that Mr Cameron was doing “significant harm” to his party’s chances of reuniting after the referendum. In other developments:
Sir Nicholas Soames and Frank Field warn that the potential rise in migration has been severely underestimated. The joint chairmen of a cross-party group of MPs call for an end to the “open-door policy”, which they say poses a risk to “social cohesion”. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, they warn that the migration crisis might make it “extremely difficult” for Mr Cameron to win the referendum.
Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, launched the cross-party Grassroots Out campaign at a rally of 2,000 people in Kettering. Introduced by Ukip’s Nigel Farage, Dr Fox said he was “sad” to see a British prime minister taking his “begging bowl” around Europe just to change UK welfare rules.
Former military chiefs and security experts accuse the pro-EU campaign of trying to “confuse” and “frighten” people with “misleading” claims that national security would be at risk if Britain left the EU. In a letter to this newspaper, they say Nato is the cornerstone of national defence, not Europe.
Stephen Crabb, the Welsh Secretary, warns both sides in the referendum not to “bully” the electorate. In a speech on Thursday, he will tell business leaders: “Anything that smells of ‘project fear’ from either side will fail.”
George Osborne, the Chancellor, insisted a deal with EU leaders was possible next month, despite the fact no drafting on an agreement has begun. With talks between officials due to start next week, Mr Osborne said: “It’s in their interest to give us the agreement that works for everyone in the EU.”
The Prime Minister will travel to Denmark and Sweden this week as he continues talks with European leaders.
He hopes to secure a deal at next month’s EU summit in Brussels, and to call an in/out referendum in June.
John Baron, the Eurosceptic MP who organised the letter, today lifts the lid on what had been a secret inside Westminster: that 40 worried Eurosceptics have been seeking a meeting with Mr Cameron since November.
He decided to speak out after Mr Cameron snubbed their request, a response that has damaged already fragile relations between No 10 and MPs.
• Liam Fox calls for Britain to leave EU and become “an independent sovereign nation” again
• Britain needs to settle ‘uncomfortable relationship’ with EU, warns Osborne
Writing in the Telegraph, Mr Baron says that the Prime Minister’s “refusal to engage” with 40 of his MPs could “cost him” when it comes to the referendum. “His refusal to meet 40 of his backbenchers – who signed my letter last November requesting a meeting to discuss our concerns – signals No 10 has no intention of pitching for a ‘fundamental change’ in our relationship with the EU. This is a great opportunity missed,” Mr Baron says.
“No 10 ignores contributions – what could it be afraid of?” he asks. “Such an approach epitomises the EU’s democratic deficit, but we had not expected it of our own Government.”
In the letter, the MPs told Mr Cameron they were unhappy at his limited attempt to restore British “sovereignty”, which is based on getting an exemption for the UK from the principle of “ever-closer union” in the EU.
The MPs fear that the Prime Minister’s plan to renegotiate the terms of the EU membership will leave the power of Brussels to set laws and taxes in Britain intact. Only by making Parliament sovereign – with its own veto over EU laws – will Britain truly regain control over its own borders, security and taxes, they believe.
One Tory who signed the letter said: “Cameron’s inner Flashman is still there, just under the very thin veneer. When we are asking for a respectable debate after which we can come back together as a party, his answer to John Baron – and to all of us – was not respectful at all.”
Steve Baker, chairman of the Eurosceptic group Conservatives for Britain, and Bernard Jenkin, another senior MP and select committee chairman, are among the other Tories who signed the letter. Andrew Bridgen, another signatory, said: “Sovereignty belongs to the people. It is not for the politicians to give away – we have given away far too much sovereignty to the EU.”
One member of the Government who supported the letter but could not sign it said: “We are supposed to be
debating whether Britain goes down a path as an EU member in which national sovereignty would increasingly become a thing of the past, whatever anyone says. There is no evidence that Cameron is going to come up with anything like the guarantees we need that this won’t happen.”
Another senior MP who backed Mr Baron said Mr Cameron risked doing “significant harm to the unity of the party”.
The row over British sovereignty came amid renewed fears that Mr Cameron’s campaign to “remain” in the EU will resort to scare tactics to frighten voters into staying.
• EU Renegotiation is No 10’s Achilles heel, says John Baron
In his speech to business leaders in Cardiff, Mr Crabb, will warn both sides not to try to “bully” the electorate. “This has to be about considered, pragmatic decision-making,” he will say.
Mr Cameron has said he wants to win the referendum to stay in a reformed EU, to settle the issue for a generation. However, Mr Crabb will warn that the debate will rage into the future and the demand to reform Britain’s relationship with the EU will continue, long after Mr Cameron has ceased to be Prime Minister.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister regularly meets MPs and ministers to discuss the EU renegotiation. He remains committed to getting the best deal for the UK.”