EU referendum: David Cameron insists there is a 'patriotic case' for staying in Europe

PM warns voting to leave EU is 'not the right answer' to concerns with his most pro-European comments in months

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David Cameron insisted today that there was a “patriotic case” for Britain to stay engaged with Europe, as he warned that voting to leave was not “the right answer” to concerns about the EU.

In his most pro-European comments for many months, Mr Cameron said he was “close” to securing a renegotiation deal and was now “confident we can get a good outcome”. However the Prime Minister deliberately down-played expectations that an agreement could be reached at next month’s European Council meeting in Brussels, in time to hold a referendum in June or July.

He said that if the timetable slipped the referendum would be delayed and could take place “later” than September.

In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, the PM also tried to prevent the referendum becoming a vote on his time in power, saying that he would not resign even if the country voted to leave.

However most Tory MPs believe that if Mr Cameron were to lead the campaign to remain in the EU he would be forced to resign if that was rejected by voters.

In his first set-piece interview of the new year, Mr Cameron insisted he was making good progress on all strands of the renegotiation: “If we can deal with the things that drive us up the wall about Europe we can get the best of both worlds. [We can] actually secure our economic future inside this valuable market and also help to keep our people safe by staying together with our close allies and partners as we confront extremism and terrorism. So it’s a massive prize for Britain if we can get this right.”

Asked about the timing of the referendum, Mr Cameron attempted to play down speculation of an early poll.

“I have to have this referendum by the end of 2017. To me the substance matters much more than the timing.”

Mr Cameron insisted that the Civil Service had not been asked to work out contingency plans in case of a “leave” vote, adding that the Government would not be “neutral” in the run-up to the referendum. “My intention is that at the conclusion of the negotiation, the Cabinet has a discussion and reaches a clear recommendation to the British people of what we should do. I hope that will be staying in a reformed EU.

“The Civil Service is working round the clock to support my renegotiation. It’s not smoke and mirrors because there’s a very serious negotiation agenda; this is not simple or easy – all of the areas I’m talking about … all of those are difficult and the Civil Service is working to help me deliver those things. Now, if we fail to deliver them and we have to take a different stance, then that’s a new situation. But I’m clear in politics what my goal is: my goal is renegotiation, referendum, secure Britain’s place in a reformed EU.”

But the Conservative backbencher David Davis told the BBC’s Sunday Politics that he expected up to half the parliamentary party and “five or six” cabinet ministers to campaign for Brexit.