David Cameron stands by EU draft deal despite backlash from Tory Eurosceptics

Prime Minister forced to water down commitment to ban EU migrants from qualifying for in-work benefits for four years

David Cameron will make his case in Parliament for a long-awaited draft deal reshaping Britain’s relationship with Europe while facing a backlash in his own party, after the proposals were revealed to fall short of his original promises of sweeping reform.

The Prime Minister has been forced to water down a commitment to ban EU migrants from qualifying for in-work benefits for four years. He has also come under fire for not obtaining stronger safeguards for the UK over decisions taken by eurozone countries.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who enjoys strong support in Conservative ranks, said the proposed agreement did not go far enough – calling for tougher action to give the House of Commons a veto over EU laws.

Mr Cameron has hailed the reform blueprint from Donald Tusk, the European Council President, as “something worth fighting for” and signalled he planned to campaign to stay in the EU on the basis of the proposals.

Although he said there was “still work to be done”, the Prime Minister has now in effect begun his campaign to remain in the bloc.

He hopes to secure agreement from the other 27 EU leaders at a summit on 18-19 February, using it as the basis for a referendum on EU membership in late June.

Cameron on EU reform

Mr Cameron said: “Sometimes people say to me, ‘If you weren’t in the EU, would you opt to join the EU?’ And today I can give a very clear answer: if I could get these terms for British membership, I sure would opt in to be a member of the EU, because they are good terms and they are different to what other countries have.”

Mr Cameron was backed by Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, who said: “Significant movement has taken place. What we have now is the architecture for a deal to be done.”

He said he believed there was little risk of a “significant negative reaction” from other EU leaders.

The Prime Minister received a boost when Theresa May indicated she was likely to support the deal. The Home Secretary, who has previously refused to be drawn on her intentions, said: “We have made progress, more work needs to be done, but this is a basis for a deal.”

However, the Cabinet’s big guns will find it difficult to convince many of their colleagues of the merits of the planned deal.

Chris Grayling, the Commons Leader, protested in a cabinet meeting that ministers who favoured Brexit were gagged by collective cabinet responsibility.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has made known that he believes Mr Tusk’s suggestions for limiting EU migrants do not go far enough. He has pointed out that he was not consulted on the proposals.

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European Council President, Donald Tusk (EPA)

One cabinet source said: “There’s going to be a lot of pressure on some ministers to start peeling off and to make the opposite case to David Cameron’s.”

Critics of the Tusk proposals focused on the Prime Minister’s original pledge to reduce the migration “pull factor” by stopping new arrivals from the EU from receiving in-work benefits for four years after their arrival. He is now suggesting an “alert and safeguard mechanism” to allow member states to apply an “emergency brake” to migrants’ benefits at times of “exceptional” pressure. 

Welfare restrictions would be in place for up to four years, with benefit payments to be phased in over that period.

If Britain votes to remain in the EU, ministers hope the emergency brake could come into force in six to nine months, although the deal’s fine print suggested the delay could be closer to a year.

Mr Cameron had to back off from a demand to stop child benefit being paid to UK-based workers with children elsewhere in the EU. Instead, Britain will pay reduced rates linked to the cost of raising a child in the other country.

Mr Cameron’s demand for nations outside the single currency to be protected from decisions taken by the eurozone has also been diluted.

Mr Tusk proposes a mechanism for non-euro countries to refer disputes to heads of government at the European Council. But this process does not amount to a veto and lacks the force of treaty change.

Liam Fox, the former Tory Defence Secretary, said the proposals had been “watered down by the EU in every area and did not “even come close to the fundamental changes promised to the public”.

Boris on EU 'red card'

Mr Johnson, who is seen as a potential leader of the Out campaign, said that “much, much more” was needed from Brussels. Prior to seeing the Tusk document, he singled out the “emergency brake” and the so-called “red card” proposals to block EU laws, saying that Britain should have control on when to activate such limits on the EU’s power. 

“I think what would be better would be if we had a brake of our own, that we were willing to use, and that we were more willing to say, ‘Look, Britain is an independent, sovereign country and we don’t agree with this particular piece of legislation or regulation and that we want to stop it’,” he told LBC Radio. 

Tory MP Steve Baker, co-chair of the Eurosceptic campaign group Conservatives for Britain, was scathing about the deal, saying the Europe minister David Lidington, who answered questions from MPs, had been tasked with “polishing a poo”. 

Eurosceptic Tory on 'red card'

The chairman of the Labour In For Britain campaign, the former cabinet minister Alan Johnson, said his party was pleased “the starting pistol has been fired” and was hoping for a speedy referendum, ideally on 23 or 30 June.

The Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames said: “In the past, Leave campaigners have called for wide-ranging reforms… Yet today they have lambasted the reforms put forward by Donald Tusk before the negotiation is even complete.”

Mr Tusk told the BBC it was “too early to say” how other EU members would respond. He said he hoped there would be a deal, adding “the stakes are really high”.

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