David Cameron staked out his position on Europe yesterday by guaranteeing a referendum on any future transfers of power to the European Union if the Tories are elected.
The Tory leader has already committed to holding a referendum on the current negotiations if he wins power, but he went a step further yesterday by vowing that a Conservative government would change the 1972 European Communities Act that paved the way for Britain's entry to the EU as a means of forcing future governments to hold a referendum on further transfers of power.
The commitment was also seen by many as a move to counter the appeal of Ukip in winning over Eurosceptic Tories at the next general election.
However, Mr Cameron has privately admitted he is concerned that Tory polling has shown most people believe the issue of Europe is more important to the Conservative Party than it is to ordinary voters.
Mr Brown is facing a difficult EU summit on 18 October at which the Portuguese presidency is hoping to win approval for the new EU treaty. If he calls a general election before that date, the referendum debate is sure to become one of the major dividing lines in the campaign.
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, won rapturous applause yesterday from Tories at their annual conference in Blackpool by saying the party would be the only one of three main parties fighting the election on a pledge to hold a referendum.
"A Conservative government elected this autumn will hold a referendum on any EU treaty which emerges from the current negotiations," said Mr Hague. "I can tell you today that we will go further: the next Conservative government will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that if any future government agrees any treaty that transfers further competences from Britain to the EU a national referendum before it could be ratified would be required by law."
Accusing Labour and the Liberal Democrats of reneging on promises to hold a referendum, Mr Hague branded attempts to portray the EU treaty as fundamentally different from the earlier constitution "one of the most bare-faced and deliberate misrepresentations in the modern annals of political deceit".
In a preview of the Tory election campaign, he said: "Labour promised a referendum on the constitution at the last election. Without holding one on a treaty so similar, Gordon Brown has no democratic mandate to surrender the rights and powers of ... this country."
But he stressed the Tories would not be offering to pull out of the EU. "Our commitment to the EU lies in our friendship with our neighbours, our belief in an open common market and our determination to make it a force for good," he said.
Calls for a referendum on the treaty were rejected yesterday by Jim Murphy, the minister for Europe. MPs called for the deal to be delayed to allow greater scrutiny, but Mr Murphy insisted that MPs would be able to go through the treaty "in detail" after it was formally approved in December. He said: "The Prime Minister has said again that if we achieve our red lines we see no need for a referendum."
Replying to a plea by the Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins for the negotiations to be put back by a year Mr Murphy said: "I'm not sure there is a compelling case for a delay. It will ultimately be up to Parliament whether it wishes to pass or to delay or to amend or reject the treaty."Reuse content