The pressure on David Cameron to harden his line on Europe increased today, when a former Cabinet minister urged him to serve two years’ notice of Britain’s intention to leave the EU.
Owen Paterson, who was sacked as Environment Secretary in July, argued that invoking Article 50 of the EU’s governing treaties would strengthen Britain’s negotiating hand ahead of the 2017 in/out referendum Mr Cameron has promised. Mr Paterson claimed such a pledge could be "enormously attractive to uncommitted voters".
In a speech in London, Mr Paterson said his own preferred option was for the UK to quit and negotiate a free trade agreement with the rest of Europe as Norway has done. Arguing that Britain had come to a "fork in the road" in its relationship with the EU, he said: “In short, it is not so much that we are leaving the EU, as much as the political project of the EU has left us.”
Other parties warned that Mr Paterson’s proposal would be an “own goal”. Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, said: “Owen Paterson’s suggestion of invoking Article 50 is equivalent to handing in your resignation notice. It’s not a negotiating tactic. It is a notice to quit.”
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, dismissed the plan as "idiotic". He said: “Norway has to abide by all the rules, pay into the coffers, accept people crossing across the European Union and has absolutely no say on how the club is run at all.”