Sir John Major has urged David Cameron to negotiate positively as he seeks a “new settlement” with the EU and played down Eurosceptics’ hopes of powers being returned to Britain.
The former Conservative Prime Minister backed Mr Cameron’s pledge to call an in/out referendum by 2017 but described it as a “gamble”. He hoped it would “heal sores” and have a “cleansing effect” on politics.
Sir John’s seven years in Downing Street to 1997 were scarred by rows with Tory Eurosceptics, even though he won an opt-out from the single currency and social chapter of workers’ rights.
Speaking to the Chatham House think tank, he said: “At present, we are drifting towards and possibly through the European exit. We need a renegotiation and a referendum endorsement of it. If this is denied, the clamour for it will only grow. But it is a gamble for the country and for the Conservative Party.
“The relationship with Europe has poisoned British politics for too long, distracted Parliament and come close to destroying the Conservative Party. It is time to resolve the matter.”
Sir John warned that the negotiations would be difficult, and suggested Mr Cameron should not threaten a British withdrawal to try to “bully” our EU partners. “If we enter with the aggressive attitude of ‘give us our way or we quit’, we will fail,” he said.
He continued: “We should not overestimate what can be achieved.” He said other EU nations were unlikely to allow Britain to withdraw from the social chapter, to which the previous Labour Government signed up, and common agricultural and fisheries policies.
But he believed Mr Cameron could deliver repeal of the working time directive, safeguards for the City of London, less regulation, less bureaucracy, no more social legislation and boosting the single market. Warning that some Tory MPs had become addicted to rebelling, he said hardline Euro-sceptics would never be satisfied no matter what Mr Cameron achieved.
“Members with Conservative heads and Ukip hearts cannot be placated. Whatever is offered to them will be insufficient. They will demand more. They will only be satisfied by withdrawal, so it’s essential for the Prime Minister to rally the persuadable majority of the parliamentary party. If the negotiations fail, the referendum could be lost and we could slip out of the EU in frustration and by default.”
Restrictions on Romanians will 'breach rights'
Any restrictions imposed on Romanians and Bulgarians travelling to Britain next year will breach European Union laws, David Cameron was warned by the European Commission’s vice-president.
Viviane Reding’s warning came after the Prime Minister instructed ministers to find ways of toughening up rules on foreigners’ entitlement to public services and benefits to deter migrants from heading to this country.
The issue has leapt up the political agenda following claims that a wave of Romanians and Bulgarians could come to Britain after controls on their movement within the EU are lifted at the end of the year.