David Cameron may hold early referendum on EU

UK membership vote outlined as prime minister addresses cabinet for first time

UK government members assemble for prime minister David Cameron’s first cabinet address following last week’s election. A spokesman for Mr Cameron has said that  he may hold an early referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU depending on negotiations with the bloc. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/PA Wire

UK government members assemble for prime minister David Cameron’s first cabinet address following last week’s election. A spokesman for Mr Cameron has said that he may hold an early referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU depending on negotiations with the bloc. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/PA Wire

 

UK prime minister David Cameron will hold an early referendum on membership of the European Union if he can first reach a deal that satisfies his demands for major changes in Britain’s relationship with the bloc, his spokesman said.

Mr Cameron, who won a majority in Thursday’s general election, has pledged to renegotiate Britain’s ties with Europe and then give voters an in-out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017.

“If we can do it earlier we will,” his spokesman said, when asked if Mr Cameron would like to hold the vote earlier. The spokesman added that Mr Cameron would seek changes to the EU’s basic treaties as part of the renegotiation.

The prospect of a vote on membership by the EU’s second-biggest economy has worried both investors and allies, who say the UK’s influence would be diminished if it dropped out of the world’s biggest trading bloc.

Mr Cameron has said he wants to stay in a reformed EU but that he would not be heartbroken if the UK left. Opinion polls show British voters are divided, with a little more than half in favour of membership.

Since winning a second term, Mr Cameron has been offered talks on reforms by European leaders, but the EU executive has stressed that there can be no renegotiation of the EU’s basic treaties.

Mr Cameron’s spokesman said that Mr Cameron was clear that “he wants treaty change”.

“All the advice that he has had is that treaty change is required, for example, in terms of some of the changes that we want to see in welfare,” the spokesman said.

Making amendments to the basic treaties requires unanimity among all 28 states, and even if such an agreement could be reached, those changes would need to be ratified in each country.

Ratification would require votes in parliaments or, in some cases, national referendums. France, among others, fears that it would not be able to secure a Yes vote for new EU deals in the face of mounting Eurosceptic sentiment at home.

Last year, Mr Cameron set out plans to limit welfare payments to EU migrants.

Some analysts believe those measures would require treaty change, though lawyers are split on the question.

Mr Cameron wants to cut red tape emanating from Brussels, and restrict its powers. He thinks that national parliaments should be able to work together to block EU legislation. He also wants to limit EU influence on British policing and justice matters.

Mr Cameron has thus far won limited backing from other EU leaders, and while German chancellor Angela Merkel does favour treaty change, she wants something more narrow as a way of deepening euro zone integration.

Further details about the UK’s view of which reforms are needed will be set out by Mr Cameron at a meeting of EU leaders in late June, the spokesman said.

Mr Cameron would take the lead in negotiations, supported by George Osborne, foreign secretary Philip Hammond and newly re-appointed Europe minister David Lidington.

Mr Osborne, speaking in Brussels, cautioned that allies should not underestimate the UK’s determination.

“We go into the negotiations aiming to be constructive and engaged but also resolute and firm and no one should underestimate our determination to succeed for the working people of Britain,” Mr Osborne said.

Cabinet address

David Cameron emphasised the fresh start his new government will make as he addressed his cabinet for the first time.

The prime minister, welcoming his Tory-only team at Downing Street, said the majority administration would be “different” from the coalition, as it would have proper accountability.

Mr Cameron told his most senior ministers, who thumped the table as he arrived, that there would be no trading away of policies.

The Tory leader prompted cheers of “hear, hear” as he described the Conservatives as the “real party of working people”.

Mr Cameron said: “This will be a different government. It is not a coalition government so we have proper accountability. There’s no trading away of things that are in [the manifesto].”

Delivering on the pledges in full would be one of the most important things the government does to restore faith and trust in British politics, he added.

Mr Cameron began by saying: “Before we start, I want everyone round this table to be absolutely clear what we are here to do and who we are here to do it for.

“It is absolutely vital that every decision that we take, every policy we pursue, every programme we start is about giving everyone in our country the best chance of living a fulfilling and good life and making the most of their talents.

“That’s what this government is going to be about.”

The prime minister said: “Some pundits might call it ‘blue-collar Conservatism’, or being on the side of hard-working taxpayers.

“I would call it being the real party of working people . . . the dignity of work, the dignity of having a pay-cheque, being able to keep more of their own money to spend as they choose, a home of their own, the peace of mind and security that comes from being able to raise a family and have a decent and secure retirement.

“Those are the down-to-earth, bread-and-butter issues that we were elected to deliver on.”

Mr Cameron also spoke of the government’s responsibility to support those who cannot work.

“As I said on the steps of Downing Street five years ago, those who can, should, those who can’t, we always help.

“I want our reforms in education and welfare to be about true social justice and genuine compassion, helping people get on and make the most of their lives and supporting those who can’t.”

In a nod to events in Scotland, he told the cabinet that bringing the country together would be key to the new government’s success.

“The agenda of bringing our country together - whether that is making sure the economy works for everybody and every part of our country or the agenda of bringing the UK together - that is going to be absolutely key to the success of this government.

“I also want you to remember what we were elected on. This [manifesto] - in here, in the programme, we have a mandate to deliver on all of it.”

Cabinet room

The cabinet room was buzzing as members, new and old, chatted to each other while they waited for Mr Cameron.

Business minister Anna Soubry and Priti Patel, who has replaced Esther McVey as employment minister, were sitting together at the far end of the table.

Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers and the new communities and local government secretary Greg Clark could also be seen talking to each other.

A hush fell over the room for a few seconds as the prime minister arrived, before the ministers began thumping the cabinet table with their fists.

With a goal of full employment and three million new apprenticeships, Downing Street said the first Queen’s speech will include a legal duty to report progress in these areas to parliament annually.

It will also include a bill to reduce the benefit cap to £23,000 (about €32,000), the savings from which will go directly to supporting apprenticeships.

In addition, a new scheme will see young people with no work experience required to take part in training or work placements or see their benefits removed.

A bill increasing free childcare for three- and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week will also be prioritised by the new government, as will plans to introduce tax-free child care for every child.

Reuters and PA