The Conservative party is “lighting a fire” under the European Union by pledging to hold an in/out referendum on British membership by the end of 2017, the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has said.
In one of the most hostile speeches by a British cabinet minister about the EU, Hammond said the referendum was a “very powerful weapon in our armoury” as the prime minister, David Cameron, seeks to renegotiate the UK’s membership terms.
The intervention by Hammond, as MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of the second reading of a private member’s bill on the referendum, coincided with an apparent cooling of the Conservative leadership to plans for Britain to remain signed up to the European arrest warrant.
Downing Street declined to deny that Michael Gove, the chief whip, has suggested to Tory MPs that the government might be willing to set aside the European arrest warrant. Britain is due to opt out of 133 EU justice and home affairs issues before immediately opting back into 35 of the measures, including the European arrest warrant, by 1 December.
A vote is due to be held to approve the changes. But Gove has been told by Tory Eurosceptics that the prime minister will face his biggest rebellion on the EU if Conservative MPs are asked to approve continued British participation in the arrest warrant, which allows suspects to be extradited to and from other EU member states quickly.
Gove, who has previously said that Britain has nothing to fear by being outside the EU, is reported to have suggested to Tory MPs that the government may change tack. Downing Street said its position had not changed.
The hostility among senior Tories to the EU was highlighted when Hammond told MPs: “The fact of the referendum – the fact of this bill – will drive the timetable of that agenda in Europe. We are lighting a fire under the European Union by this piece of legislation. We are setting off a process that politicians and governments do not have the power to stop, and that will give us a very powerful weapon in our armoury.”
The foreign secretary said radical change would have to be introduced to persuade him to support continued EU membership. “No change is not an option. The status quo in Europe is not in Britain’s interests, or in the interests of anyone in Europe. So what most of us want to see is a radically reformed Europe; a Europe where powers flow from Brussels back to the nations, not the other way round; a Europe of cooperating nations, not a European superstate; a Europe of open markets and free trade arrangements with the world beyond; a Europe that can out-compete the best in the world, without red tape and regulation weighing it down. But most of all we want to see a Europe on which the British people have had their say.”
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, accused the prime minister of undermining Britain’s standing in the EU by spending more time negotiating with his backbenchers than with EU partners.
Citing Cameron’s loss of a vote, by 26-2, on the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European commission president, Alexander said: “This is the only British prime minister in history who lost in the European Council on a vote that he did not need to lose. Not only did he have support from the Liberal [Democrat] party and the Labour party, but there was significant support among other European countries. However, if someone spends their time driving and looking through the rear view mirror, they tend to crash the car.
“That is exactly what the prime minister is doing when he spends more time negotiating with his backbenchers than with other European parties. That is disastrous for the Conservative party but bad for Britain as well, and it is about time we had a reform agenda that spoke to the country’s needs on immigration, institutional reform and UK scrutiny.”
Alexander mocked a breakfast held for Tory MPs in Downing Street ahead of the debate which the prime minister missed. “As I stand here again, a year on, after yet another Friday morning meeting in Downing Street to rally the beleaguered troops – I venture to suggest that never have so many bacon rolls died in vain – looking at Conservative members, or at least what is left of them, gathered to talk about their favourite subject of Europe, I have to say that I feel a certain sense of deja vu. The only thing that seems different this morning is the absence of the chief whip and the prime minister.”
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