Theresa May has indicated that she is prepared to campaign in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, boosting David Cameron hours after Brussels tabled proposals for a new settlement following months of talks with the UK.
The home secretary, at one time considered as a possible leading figure in the no campaign, described the proposals as the “basis for a deal”.
A referendum could be held in June if EU leaders sign up to the package at a summit later this month or a at special extra summit which would have to be held no later than the first week of March.
“EU free movement rules have been abused for too long and EU law has stopped us deporting dangerous foreign criminals,” May said in a statement.
“That is plainly wrong and it is encouraging that the commission has agreed with the UK that we should take action to address these two issues.
“So we have made progress and negotiations continue ahead of the February council. As the prime minister has said, more work needs to be done, but this is a basis for a deal.”
Downing Street was delighted with the statement by the home secretary which was issued after the prime minister declared that, “hand on heart”, the Tusk proposals showed that he had achieved his Conservative manifesto commitments on the EU.
Earlier on Tuesday, Tusk had outlined a new settlement of the UK within the EU.
The headline proposal was to introduce an emergency brake that allows EU member states to restrict access to in-work benefits for up to four years if they can prove that their welfare system is facing intolerable pressure.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, indicated to the prime minister in Brussels last week that Britain would have the right to apply the emergency brake if the people voted yes in a referendum , although its use would have to be approved by the European council.
The prime minister said that Tusk’s proposals on the most contentious area of welfare reforms amounted a “very strong and powerful package” and added that he would even recommend EU membership if the UK were already outside the union.
Speaking at the Siemens rail automation plant in Chippenham, Wiltshire, Cameron said: “Sometimes people say to me, ‘If you weren’t in the EU would you opt to join the EU?’ And today I can give a very clear answer: if I could get these terms for British membership, I sure would opt in to be a member of the EU because they are good terms and they are different to what other countries have.”
Cameron stressed that the deal was not yet finalised and would have to be approved by EU leaders at their next summit on 18-19 February. A referendum can be held by the government’s preferred date of 23 June if the prime minister finalises his negotiations at the mid-February summit or a second special summit in the first week of March.
But the prime minister indicated he would campaign for a yes vote in the referendum if the proposals are not dramatically altered and are approved by the rest of the EU. “I can say, hand on heart, I have delivered the commitments that I made in my manifesto,” said Cameron.
“If, for instance, you pay people £5,000 to £10,000 additional to their wages then that is a draw to Britain ... This is a negotiation, this has to be agreed by 27 other countries. This is something no government or country has managed before: to start a renegotiation from a standing start, bring it to a conclusion and hold a referendum.”
Tusk also proposed:
- To declare that members of the eurozone will “respect the rights and competences of the non-participating member states” as they make decisions.
- A statement that member states are not bound to accept further moves towards deeper European integration, re-interpreting the EU’s historic commitment to create an “ever closer union of the peoples of Europe”.
- A series of measures to promote economic competitiveness across the EU.
Jeremy Corbyn criticised Cameron for giving his response to Tusk outside parliament, and briefing the media rather than going to the House of Commons to answer questions.
The Labour leader said the prime minister was showing a lack of respect for MPs and appeared more concerned with internal Tory splits on the EU than explaining the deal to parliament.
“He is trumpeting the sovereignty of national parliaments as part of the renegotiations, but doesn’t seem to respect the sovereignty of this parliament by coming here today to make the statement he should have done,” Corbyn said.
Cameron will give a statement to MPs on Wednesday after prime minister’s questions. His absence from the Commons for Corbyn’s urgent question meant he was not there to hear Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers pour scorn on his deal.
Most of the cabinet’s heavyweight members are now expected to line up behind the prime minister to campaign in favour of continued EU membership in the referendum, which he hopes to hold on 23 June.
Michael Gove, the justice secretary, and Boris Johnson, a member of the Tories’ political cabinet and London mayor, are likely to join Cameron, George Osborne, and the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, in campaigning to keep Britain in the EU.
But eurosceptic cabinet ministers planning to campaign for an exit expressed unease that the prime minister was effectively campaigning in favour of EU membership while they are denied the right to speak in favour of a British exit until the negotiations have been concluded.
Chris Grayling, one of at least four cabinet ministers who are expected to campaign to leave the EU, is understood to have raised his concerns at the cabinet on Tuesday morning shortly before the publication of the Tusk documents.
The prime minister is understood to have told Grayling that his rules for the suspension of collective responsibility should remain in place to avoid the spectacle of ministers tying themselves up in knots.
Grayling will be joined by Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary, and John Whittingdale, the culture secretary. Priti Patel, who attends cabinet as employment minister and first made her name as a member of the late James Goldsmith’s Referendum party, may also campaign to leave.
Eurosceptic Tories expressed their unease when Corbyn tabled an urgent question to the prime minister that was answered by the Europe minister, David Lidington. Sir Bill Cash, the veteran Eurosceptic, asked Lidington: “How can the minister justify this pint-sized package as a fundamental change in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union?”
Steve Baker, the leader of the Conservative leave campaign, told parliament that ministers were “polishing poo” by trying to present the EU offer as a victory, while his colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg said Downing Street appeared to be trying to “make bricks out of straw”.
Liam Fox, the former defence secretary who is one of the most senior Tories campaigning for a vote to leave the EU, dismissed the Tusk offer. “The very limited set of demands from our government have been watered down by the EU in every area,” Fox said. “None of these changes even come close to the fundamental changes promised to the public.”
The home secretary has decided to support EU membership after achieving “very good wins” on the abuse of free movement during nine trips to Brussels since September. May was pleased with a crackdown on “sham marriages” – non-EU citizens who marry a UK citizen have no automatic right to settle in the UK. But if they marry a citizen of another EU country they can move to the UK under the EU’s rules on free movement.
On Tuesday night Barack Obama spoke to Cameron on the phone, and received an update on negotiations over the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU. “The president reaffirmed continued US support for a strong United Kingdom in a strong European Union,” the White House said.
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