David Cameron is to signal his determination to press ahead with the referendum on Britain’s European Union membership by publishing the parliamentary bill, which will pave the way for the vote, a day after the Queen’s speech next week.
The prime minister, who will chair the first political cabinet of the new parliament on Tuesday, will try to reassure Tory MPs that he will keep his word on Europe.
Cameron is determined to hold the referendum by the end of 2017. Among the parliamentary bills that will feature in the Queen’s speech, which will be delivered on 27 May, there will be a bill to implement the Smith commission recommendations on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament, a schools bill to make it easier to allow failing or “coasting” schools to be turned into academies, and a new British bill of rights to replace the Human Rights Act and reform the UK’s relationship with the European court of human rights. Sajid Javid, the business secretary, will pledge to save at least £10bn by cutting red tape for companies through a new enterprise bill.
After a meeting of the cabinet, the prime minister will then chair the political cabinet, at which he will outline his plans to occupy the political centre ground as the Tories claim the mantle of the one-nation party amid the “disarray” of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The political cabinet will be attended by Boris Johnson, who told Cameron that he would not take a full government post until he completed his term as London mayor next year.
Johnson has made it clear in recent months that he would be prepared to campaign for a British exit from the EU if European leaders rejected the prime minister’s demands for reform. But the mayor’s appointment to the political cabinet, where the political terms of the EU referendum campaign will be set, suggests that the prime minister is keen to tie Johnson to his plan.
Cameron received a boost when the Open Europe thinktank, which campaigns for major changes to the EU, gave an upbeat assessment of his chances on EU negotiations. It suggested that the prime minister had a good chance to win support for his plans to restrict in-work benefits for EU migrants and to secure protections for non-eurozone members of the EU. It even suggested that Cameron may be able to achieve the changes without rewriting treaties.
Raoul Ruparel, Open Europe’s head of economic research, said: “David Cameron will be squeezed between those who say no substantial reforms in Europe are possible and those who seek to set the bar so high that it is effectively code for exit before even trying to fundamentally reform the EU.
“He should ignore both camps and instead seek to balance the priorities of the UK public, businesses and his own party along with the achievability of the reforms in Europe.”
The prime minister has made a point of binding the Thatcherite right into his EU renegotiation plans by appointing the arch-Eurosceptic John Whittingdale to the cabinet as culture secretary. Priti Patel, who worked for Sir James Goldsmith, the founder of the short-lived Referendum party, during the 1997 general election campaign, attends cabinet as the employment minister.
Open Europe has released a detailed analysis of 30 areas of reform in the EU. The report suggests that there is a reasonable chance of success in the four broad areas where the prime minister is demanding change. Open Europe suggests:
- Restrictions on in-work benefits for EU migrants for four years – one of the prime minister’s most controversial demands – has a three out of five “achievability” rating. It suggests that this has a 50/50 chance of being negotiated without treaty change – something the prime minister will dispute. The thinktank suggests that the prime minister’s demand to tighten restrictions on the right of EU migrant jobseekers to remain in the UK has a four out of five rating and could be achieved without treaty change.
- Safeguards for non-eurozone members in the EU’s single market – by allowing such countries to suspend “qualified majority voting” if a proposal impinges on their rights – has a three in five rating.
- A “red card” to allow national parliaments to club together to block new EU legislation has a three in four rating.
- Amending the EU’s historic mission, enshrined in the treaty of Rome, to foster an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” has a four in five rating.
Open Europe believes that other leading EU member states will want to keep Britain in the EU. It believes that Britain may have a better chance of success if it does not rush the negotiations because the EU is so strongly focused on saving the eurozone at the moment in the face of the continuing Greek crisis. But it acknowledges that Britain may want to wrap up the negotiations before the French presidential election in the spring of 2017.
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