Handbagged! David Cameron's promise of EU referendum by 2017 provokes storm of controversy

Deputy PM warns of 'years of uncertainty because of a protracted, ill-defined renegotiation'

David Cameron was accused of taking dangerous gamble with Britain's economic future last night, after he bowed to Eurosceptic demands for an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union.

The Prime Minister insisted he was optimistic of winning a "new settlement" for Britain in Europe, saying he wanted to recommend staying in a reformed EU. He promised the British people that they will decide the UK’s destiny by the end of 2017 if the Tories win the 2015 general election.

But other EU leaders reacted with hostility to his demands and Labour and the Liberal Democrats warned that his gamble could backfire. They said his premature pledge would create five years of uncertainty in which Britain could lose job-creating foreign investment.

Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, said: “If the UK decides to leave the EU, we will roll out the red carpet to businessmen.”

Martin Shulz, President of the European Parliament, accused Cameron of playing a “dangerous game”, while the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that other EU countries with “different wishes” to Britain could reject the PM’s demands.

The dangers of Mr Cameron’s high-risk approach were summed up by Tony Blair, who told BBC Radio 4: “It reminds me a bit of the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles where the sheriff … holds a gun to his own head and says, ‘If you don’t do what I want I’ll blow my brains out’.”

Tory Eurosceptics welcomed Mr Cameron’s historic pledge to hold the country’s first referendum on Europe since 1975.

But hardliners said he was unlikely to win a good enough deal and are already promising to vote No to continued membership. They urged the Prime Minister to spell out more clearly that he would recommend a No vote if he failed to secure a good agreement for Britain. He dodged that crucial question today, saying: “Who goes into a negotiation hoping and expecting to fail? That is not the approach I take … There is every chance of success.”

Business leaders welcomed the debate on Britain’s position in Europe but some businessmen expressed concern. Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the WPP advertising group, told The Independent its clients are worried about the uncertainty and would suspend investment decisions or move elsewhere. “To postpone it for this length of time is dangerous. Like it or not, we are part of Europe,” he said. “I think for us to be outside it would be a mistake.”

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader, said: “The overwhelming priority of the British people is jobs, growth and a strong economy and my view is that achieving that ambition is made all the more difficult if you have years and years of uncertainty because of an ill-defined and protracted renegotiation of Britain’s status within the EU.”

EU diplomats predicted other countries would make limited concessions but would not concede the special treatment Mr Cameron seeks to keep the UK on board.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said: “We are prepared to talk about British wishes but we must always bears in mind that other countries have different wishes and we must find a fair compromise,” she said.

Guido Westerwelle, her Foreign Minister, added that “cherry picking is not an option”, saying Europe needed more, not less, integration.

In a radio interview, Mr Fabius warned: “You can’t do Europe a la carte... to take an example which our British friends will understand - imagine Europe is a football club and you join, once you’re in it you can’t say ‘Let’s play rugby’ “.

And tonight the White House reiterated the United States’s wish from Britain to remain within the EU.

President Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney said: “We believe that the United Kingdom is stronger as a result of its European Union membership and we believe the European Union is stronger as a result of having the United Kingdom in the EU.”

Cameron aides believe his landmark pledge to “let the people decide” will be a vote-winner at the 2015 election. They seized on confusion over Labour’s position after Ed Miliband ruled out an “in or out” referendum at Prime Minister’s Questions, only for his party to make clear later that one was not excluded forever.

Tory Eurosceptics, who gave Mr Cameron a hero’s welcome in the Commons chamber, were jubilant about his call for Britain to be exempt from the EU founding fathers’ commitment to “ever-closer union.” But in private, they are pressing the Prime Minister to go further. “He has got to go into the talks with a stick in his hand,” one said. “He has got to say he would recommend we pull out if they don’t give us back the powers we want.”

There was little sign that Mr Cameron’s promise would buy him much time on an issue that has haunted the Tory party since the Thatcher era. Mark Reckless, a prominent Eurosceptic, said the Prime Minister’s position in the referendum was now “up for grabs” and predicted he would recommend withdrawal. Sajid Javid, the Treasury minister, told The Spectator that if no renegotiation were on offer, he “would personally consider our options outside the EU.”

Giving his long-awaited speech in London, Mr Cameron insisted: “We should think very carefully before giving that position up. If we left the EU, it would be a one-way ticket, not a return. So we will have time for a proper, reasoned debate.” 

He added: “I understand the appeal of going it alone, of charting our own course. But it will be a decision we will have to take with cool heads….Of course Britain could make her own way in the world, outside the EU, if we chose to do so. So could any other member state. But the question we will have to ask ourselves is this: is that the very best future for our country.”

Mr Cameron continued: “I never want us to pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the world. I am not a British isolationist. I don’t just want a better deal for Britain. I want a better deal for Europe too.”

But leading Europhiles warned that Britain would be sidelined by EU withdrawal.

Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown said: “Mr Cameron has effectively told us that it is his intention to put Britain on a one-way street to leaving Europe.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms