Boris Johnson and other senior Conservatives are warning David Cameron that they may not vote to keep Britain in the European Union unless there is a “significant” repatriation of powers from Brussels.
By Robert Winnett, Political Editor
8:00PM GMT 24 Jan 2013
More than 100 Conservative MPs, including several members of the Cabinet, are prepared to vote “out” in a referendum unless Britain’s relationship with the EU is fundamentally changed after the next election.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister pledged to renegotiate Britain’s membership and then allow the public a referendum on the revised deal – if he is re-elected in 2015.
Yesterday during a series of interviews at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr Cameron repeatedly stressed that he wanted Britain to remain a member of the EU.
However, he has not yet set out which powers he would like to repatriate to Britain – and the only specific example he has stated is restrictions on the working hours of doctors.
Although his landmark Europe speech was warmly welcomed by most Conservatives, senior figures in the party have indicated that they will seek a British exit from the EU if significant powers are not returned.
Yesterday, Mr Johnson, the London mayor, asked if he would vote to keep Britain in the EU, said: “I can’t say now, but my overwhelming instinct would be that we can get sufficient changes, reforms and improvements to the treaty to make it sensible for most people in my country to vote to stay in the single market.”
Sajid Javid, a Treasury minister, said in an interview with the Spectator magazine: “I would personally consider our options outside the EU [without renegotiation].”
These views are understood to be shared by Cabinet ministers including Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and Owen Paterson.
One minister said: “There is no division in the Cabinet at all over the position, but there is an expectation among a large group of the party that there will have to be a major renegotiation for ongoing membership to be supported. But, this is now a settled issued until after the election.”
Last night, in an interview with CNN, the Prime Minister said that he would not issue “demands” and then “storm off” if they were not met during negotiations over Britain’s EU membership.
Mr Cameron said: “What we’ve said is we think there’s a whole range of areas where the European Union has legislated too often and gone too far, covering areas like social and employment legislation, environmental legislation…I mean, just one example, the hours that hospital doctors work in Britain is, you know, dictated sometimes by rules [from] Brussels. That really isn’t necessary in an open, flexible, competitive Europe.”
He added: “We’re not putting a list of demands on the table and saying we’ll storm off if we don’t get them. What we’re saying is we should in Europe have changes that will benefit all of the countries of the European Union, but which at the same time will, I think, make Britain more comfortable with her place in the European Union.”
The Prime Minister spent much of yesterday at Davos lobbying other European leaders to support his position. He met with Angela Merkel after the German chancellor said she would consider Britain’s demands for renegotiation.
“They touched briefly on the Prime Minister’s EU speech,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Mr Cameron also had short meetings with Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister, Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister and Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister.
Most European leaders stressed that they wished for Britain to remain an active member of the EU.
Last night, Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, suggested that although he opposed Mr Cameron’s position he may support a future referendum on EU membership.
However, in an interview with The House magazine, he said he was “none the wiser” about what the “great re-negotiation means” as the Coalition was already committed to changing working time laws.
The Liberal Democrat leader said: “It was a well-crafted speech and obviously very well delivered.
“My own view is that it will be a tactical victory today for a strategic mistake tomorrow. Because actually the whole approach hinges not so much on the referendum, but on prior to that, reinventing and resettling the terms of Britain’s membership in the European Union – but I’ve no idea how.
“Changing the working time directive, even I agree with that, we put that in the coalition agreement; a change on fisheries, fine. But in that case, what on earth is all the fuss about? Because anyone would agree to that.”
But, he added: “Or it means a complete wholesale rewriting of the whole terms of the membership of Britain of the European Union within 18 months flat, which I think is wholly implausible.”