Over 66% of British electorate want poll on EU membership

Mon, Jan 14, 2013, 00:00

More than two-thirds of British voters want a referendum on whether they should stay as members of the European Union though a majority would vote to stay in if given the opportunity to vote, according to an opinion poll.

The contradictory results come just a week before British prime minister David Cameron travels to the Netherlands to deliver a speech on his attitude to the EU, where he will call for new membership terms but not withdrawal.

The Comres opinion poll, which questioned over 2,000 people on the referendum options and voting intentions in the 2014 European Parliament election, showed major gains for Labour and the anti-EU UK Independence Party which pushed the Conservatives into third place.

While two-thirds of Ukip voters (67 per cent) say they would vote for full EU withdrawal, just 27 per cent of Conservative voters said they would do so. A quarter of Labour voters polled said they would vote for withdrawal, with just 17 per cent of Lib Dem voters saying likewise.

Four in five Ukip voters believe EU membership has been a mistake. But so too do half of all Conservative voters polled and four in 10 of all those who indicate their support for Labour, figures which leave the possibility that anti-EU sentiment could grow significantly.

Dangerous strategy

Mr Cameron is expected to brief Tory cabinet colleagues on his speech this Wednesday. But divisions exist. Some want out while others favour better terms.

However, the Cabinet’s sole Europhile Kenneth Clarke regards the debate as a distraction.

Labour leader Ed Miliband accused Mr Cameron of embarking on “an incredibly dangerous strategy”, which could see the United Kingdom sleepwalking its way out of the EU – even though that is not Mr Cameron’s ambition.

“We know why this is happening. He is worried about the threat from Ukip and he is worried about what is happening in his own party. It is the wrong thing to do. It is not in the national interest,” said Mr Miliband.

On Saturday, former Conservative minister Michael Heseltine warned of potential instability if Mr Cameron guarantees to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership terms in 2018.

‘Unnecessary gamble’

“To commit to a referendum about a negotiation that hasn’t begun, on a timescale you cannot predict, on an outcome that’s unknown, where Britain’s appeal as an inward investment market would be the centre of the debate, seems to me like an unnecessary gamble.

“Why put your factory [in Britain] when you don’t know – and they can’t tell you – the terms upon which you will trade with us in future,” Lord Heseltine, who acts as an adviser to Mr Cameron, told the Financial Times.

Illustrating the pressures facing Mr Cameron, Conservative MP Conor Burns said voters would have to be given the option of a straight in/out vote if negotiations on a new deal “aren’t acceptable”.

Speaking on BBC’s Sunday Politics, Martin Sorrell, the chief of WPP, one of the world’s largest advertising firms, urged Mr Cameron to be cautious. He said nothing will be gained “if you grandstand, you showboat, you make a lot of noise”.

Long-standing Conservative Eurosceptic Bill Cash said Germany now claims that a UK referendum would “open Pandora’s box” when it never said the same about referendums in other member states.

“Every treaty is a renegotiation: the problem is that the treaties have always recently only been going in one direction,” said Mr Cash, who is now flanked by a younger generation of anti-EU Conservative MPs.