UKIP's Farage claims victory as Cameron pledges referendum

'A British Prime Minister is at least discussing leaving Europe – it means the genie is out of the bottle'

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:47 ON Wed 23 Jan 2013

DAVID CAMERON fired the starting gun this morning for an in/out referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union. In the most important speech of his political life, he promised the referendum by the end of 2017 - but he ducked the big question: will he, a committed Euopean, back a NO vote if he fails (as many predict) to renegotiate Britain's membership terms?

Tory Eurosceptics hailed the speech as a 'game changer' while UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed his party were already the winners from Cameron's pledge to hold a referendum.

The PM's early-morning speech at Bloomberg in the City could define British politics for years to come. He rejected the warning given in recent days by US President Barack Obama that America wanted Britain as a close ally inside the EU. He also rejected the criticism of senior Tories such as Lord Heseltine that he is risking leading Britain towards the EU exit.

Cameron said he was "not a British isolationist" and he reiterated that he personally hopes Britain will stay in the EU. "I never want us to pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the world. I am not a British isolationist. I want a better deal for Europe. I speak as a British Prime Minister with a positive view of the European Union... with a future in which Britain should play a committed and active part."

He said the tensions inside the eurozone were increasing the frustration of people in the EU, illustrated by the riots on the streets of Athens. "Today in Britain public disillusionment is at an all-time high," he said. Voters saw steps being taken towards deeper integration without having a say. "Democratic consent for the EU in Britain is wafer thin."

Responding to his critics in the Tory Party, the Lib Dems and Labour, Cameron said: "Some people say that pointing this out is irresponsible... but the question-mark is already there. Ignoring it not going to make it go away. Those who refuse to put the question would in my view make an exit more likely."

Asked by Jim Naughtie on Radio 4's Today programme whether UKIP was the winner today, Farage said: "I think we are. For the first time a British Prime Minister is at least discussing leaving so what today means is… the genie is out of the bottle and the debate will take place on terms that UKIP wants."

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said it was a speech that Cameron never wanted to make. When he became a modernising Tory leader in 2005, he said he did not want the Tories to spend more time "banging on" about Europe.

Cameron's critics – including European leaders – say the promise of an in/out referendum shows that Cameron is now the captive of his Eurosceptic party. Labour strategists are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of painting Cameron like John Major - a weak leader who is following his party rather than leading it.

Ed Miliband said the referendum offer will "define him as a weak prime minister". Chuka Umunna, shadow business secretary, rammed home the message on the Today programme: "David Cameron is following his party, not the national interest. This is going to create five years of uncertainty for the economy and the business community."

Even Tory supporters have their doubts about the strategy. The Daily Telegraph's deputy editor, Ben Brogan, tweeted today: "Pledge of an in-out ref shd be a vote winner. But if Dave loses in 2015, wd that mean public care far less about Europe than outers claim?"

The big question is whether the Tories can now do a deal with Farage, whose challenge in Tory seats could cost Cameron a working majority at the 2015 general election. If Farage and UKIP agree not to stand against sitting Tory candidates in 2015, Cameron is hoping that he can still be the winner from this speech. · 

Disqus - noscript

Oh-oh yes, I'm the Great Appeaser!

Appeasing the sceptics so well;

My need is such, I appease too much;

I'm lonely, but no one can tell...

"...a weak leader who is following his party rather than leading it." (Ed Milliband)

"“There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” (Gandhi).

Total farce. Nothing to do with the UK and everything at tricking the voters into re-electing the Tories. Says he will create a bill to force a referendum BUT will only activate it if the Tories form the next government. Says he will renegotiate the terms of EU membership BUT only if the Tories form the next government. Says he will hold a simple in/out referendum BUT only if the Tories win the next government. Why can't renegotiations be done now and a referendum held this year? The answer is he knows the people will not vote for a Tory government next time around so needs something to bribe (blackmail?) us with.

If Cameron is serious about our economy and about ending uncertainty over our future relationship with Europe, he should hold a referendum this year - indeed, he should have honoured his original "cast iron guarantee" to hold a referendum when he took office - that was a strategic blunder of monumental proportions and the root cause of his current woes, quite unnecessarily adding to his problems over this vexed issue.

If I were Nigel Farage, I would not relax over this matter, especially in view of the fact that Cameron has form for mendacity and evasiveness on the European referendum question; Cameron no doubt hopes that he can consider the matter "kicked into the long grass" for another three or four years - I have no doubt that when his speech is analysed, over the next few days, others will arrive at the same conclusion - that this speech has simply been a time-buying exercise for Cameron,delivered with his fingers tightly crossed behind his back.