Cameron to brief Conservative cabinet colleagues on European Union speech


British prime minister David Cameron will today brief Conservative ministers on his highly anticipated European Union speech, due on Friday, though concerns are growing that it cannot meet expectations.

Liberal Democrats’ deputy prime minister Nick Clegg warned that even the possibility that the UK could quit the EU five years on could damage its economy and frighten away international investors.

The UK could not “on our own, unilaterally, simply rewrite the terms of our membership of this European club”, said Mr Clegg, though he did promise an in/out referendum on the issue.

Mr Cameron, who does not want to quit the EU, but who does want to reduce the impositions Brussels makes on the UK, is facing demands from influential Conservatives to create a free-trade deal for London with the other 26 countries.

So far, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg have been careful to avoid bitter public wrangling over their different attitudes to the EU. But Mr Cameron’s pledges on Friday could have a serious impact on coalition negotiations after the 2015 election, should they prove necessary.

‘Real referendum’

In 2010 the Liberal Democrats pushed for support in marginal constituencies by condemning Labour for failing to offer “a real referendum” to British voters. Mr Clegg said they “remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and EU”.

Since 2010 legislation has been passed by Westminster guaranteeing that a referendum would be held on the content of negotiation where new powers are pooled with the rest of the EU. But not one that would offer a straight “In”, or “Out” question. Even Conservative MPs who want a referendum doubt that Mr Cameron can win back powers.

Essex MP John Baron said he doubted the willingness of the rest of the EU to let the UK do so: “They are not sympathetic to the idea of any states repatriating powers; if anything, the direction of travel is the other way.” Today, the Fresh Start group of Conservative backbenchers – who want a renegotiated deal, but not departure – will publish a list of demands it wants included in the speech.

However, the danger of Mr Cameron’s strategy is that a bid to renegotiate a better deal could lead British voters facing a choice: stay or go.

“If we are quite clear that we are serious about renegotiation and fail to get it, then clearly we should go for a referendum on our future membership overall, but the preference is for us to stay in a different sort of EU,” said former minister Tim Loughton.

One senior MP privately warned the Spectator magazine that “another mañana moment will not cut the mustard” – clear pledges will have to be made in Mr Cameron’s speech, or else rebel MPs will push for a Commons vote. Conservative whips are already nervous about the management that will be needed to ensure a display of public unity in the aftermath of the speech – Mr Cameron’s ability to please all sides is remote.

Conservative fears

Meanwhile, a YouGov poll last night cast doubt on rising Conservative fears that they will be pushed into third place in next year’s European Parliament elections behind the UK Independence Party and Labour.

According to its figures, Labour are on 38 per cent, the Conservatives 27 per cent, while Ukip is “10 points behind”. “These figures suggest that a dose of realism may be in order,” said the polling company last night.