By Tim Montgomerie
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"The London Mayor forces the pace on Europe, telling the Prime Minister to sever most of our ties with Brussels and hold an in-out referendum on a bare bones relationship."
That's the verdict of today's Sun on yesterday's speech by Boris Johnson on Europe and it looks like we may not have to wait long for Cameron to respond to the Mayor's lead.
This morning's Times (£) reports that the Prime Minister is also ready to give the British people an In/Out referendum at some point in the next parliament:
"Mr Cameron would urge the public to support a looser relationship with Brussels that he hopes to negotiate over the coming years. But he is ready to give the country the chance to say “no” to such a deal, a result that would effectively be seen as a vote to quit the EU, at least on the proposed terms."
If The Times' report is true then the PM and (via a slightly winding road) Boris will have ended up in similar positions:
- Both favour an extended process of renegotiations that will aim to take Britain towards a much looser relationship with Europe – focusing on trade and voluntary co-operation.
- At the end of those negotiations the British people will be able to choose in a referendum whether the newly renegotiated terms are an acceptable basis for continuing membership or not. If renegotiation is successful both Boris and Cameron will argue that we 'stay in'.
As I argued in last week's Times (£) a promise of a referendum won't be enough, however. Mr Cameron must introduce legislation very soon to make it clear that his referendum promise is bankable:
"Vague promises of a referendum as late as 2018 won’t cut much ice with an electorate that has watched all the main parties fail to deliver on referendum promises. Mr Cameron should do as Tory MPs led by John Baron have argued and introduce enabling legislation in this Parliament that would guarantee a referendum early in the next. If Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs or peers vote it down, it will be clear which party is willing to give the people a say and which is not."
An In/Out vote is vital for three reasons:
- No Britons aged under 55 have ever had a say on EU membership;
- Unless Cameron brings the 'nuclear exit button' to the negotiating table other EU nations won't take renegotiations seriously;
- An In/Out vote is the only way of putting a lid on UKIP. It won't be enough… because (1) data clearly shows the top issue for UKIP voters (not necessarily UKIP activists and leaders) is immigration; and (2) Ann Widdecombe may also be correct (see today's Express) that issues like gay marriage are also causing some defections…. it nonetheless will help re-unite the centre right, Eurosceptic vote.
It is still unclear whether Mr Cameron will give his big Europe speech before Christmas or early in the new year.