Cameron under cosh as eight ministers 'ready to quit EU'
Scots deal ramps up the pressure for an in/out vote on EU – and further exposes rift between Tories and Lib Dems
DAVID CAMERON is facing a push by as many as eight cabinet ministers to commit the Tories to offer an 'in/out' referendum on Britain remaining in the EU. This would pacify UKIP, whose support the Conservatives will almost certainly need at the next general election if they are to take enough seats to shrug off the Lib Dems and win the election outright.
The PM's decision to sign up to a "yes/no" referendum on Scottish independence – to be sealed in Edinburgh today with Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond – will only encourage the cabinet eurosceptics. They want the Prime Minister to offer a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the new Europe if the eurozone countries go ahead and form an "inner-core" United States of Europe to end the euro crisis.
Today, Home Secretary Theresa May will begin the process of demanding a new deal with the EU by announcing in Parliament that the UK intends to opt out of more than 100 justice and home affairs measures run by Brussels.
The hardening of the anti-EU mood in the Cabinet was well illustrated by a Mail on Sunday splash saying eurosceptic Education Secretary Michael Gove is privately demanding that Cameron should tell the EU that Britain is prepared to leave the European community altogether unless we are allowed to renegotiate our relationship.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond later confirmed "many" ministers supported Gove, telling the BBC's Andrew Marr: "The point Michael is reflecting, and many of us feel, is that we are not satisfied with the current relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom. Those of us who are uncomfortable with the way that relationship has developed, see an opportunity to renegotiate it."
Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome posted last night: "My estimation is that at least eight Tory cabinet ministers would privately sign up to exactly that view."
They include Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening. Crucially, says the Mail, Oliver Letwin, a pivotal figure in Cameron's inner circle, believes the UK might be better off out of the EU altogether.
All of this requires a note of caution, however. May's move today puts the Tories on a collision course with the Lib Dems, who are refusing to sign off the plans. That may delight some Tory eurosceptics, but they should beware Cameron's attitude to Europe.
Cameron hinted in his keynote speech to the Tory party conference last week that he might promise an EU referendum at the next election - but not on a simple "in/out" question. His bottom line - shared by May and other 'caring Conservatives' in the cabinet - is that Britain should stay in the EU. They want a referendum on a renegotiated deal with the EU on the repatriation of powers, not on pulling out.
That would fall way short of meeting the requirements of UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who has said he will not enter any kind of pact with the Tories without a "written in blood" promise of an in/out referendum.
The Tories's so-called 40/40 strategy for the 2015 general election – in short, hold on to 40 marginals and target a further 40 wins - will stand no chance if the anti-Europe UKIP party is splitting the Tory vote in these 80 seats.
That is why the Cabinet push is on to seize the opportunity presented by the shifting geometry in the EU. They want to hear Cameron repeating Margaret Thatcher's "no, no, no". And with Cameron today signing up to a simple "yes/no" plebiscite on Scottish independence, they will not stand for anything less for the rest of Britain on its relations with the EU.