Andrew Lansley, the former Health Secretary, has launched a fightback by pro-European Conservatives against Eurosceptics campaigning for Britain to leave the EU.
Mr Lansley warned the vocal and growing number of Tory MPs who favour a British exit that such a move would damage the economy and leave the UK without any influence over any trade agreement with the EU.
The former Cabinet minister, whose NHS reforms were watered down after provoking controversy, addressed the Conservative Europe Group, which has the support of 60 Tory MPs. Their opponents claim more than 100 Tory MPs want to quit the 28-nation bloc.
Mr Lansley argued that the vision of UK becoming an independent nation like Norway with access to the EU single market was an illusion. He said: “If our opponents tell us we can adopt a Norway-style relationship, I’d say two things: one, give us their sovereign wealth fund [from oil and gas reserves] as a cushion, not the debt we’ve inherited from Labour; and two, why did the Norwegian Health Minister have to ring me up to get the UK to argue for her country’s position on food and drinks labelling?”
Mr Lansley backed David Cameron’s plan for an in/out referendum on Europe in 2017, saying it would settle the issue for a generation.
“We must not fall into the Ukip trap of defining the decision as being whether or not we have to vote ‘out’ in order to prevent the ever-closer union beloved of the federalists,” he said.
He added: “It is in my heart that I believe most strongly that our future is within a reformed EU: not least because we now live in a global marketplace. As part of the EU, my children can have the freedom and the opportunity to work and live across Europe; to be ambitious in the world’s largest market; and to access so much of the history, the culture and the opportunity which is our common European heritage. We should not make the mistake of equating the EU with Europe. Outside the EU, we wouldn’t cease to be Europeans. But, an exit would definitely risk losing those opportunities for our children, while growing no similar opportunities elsewhere.
“If like me, nothing is more important to you than our children’s future, then their opportunities must be protected.
“The Conservative Party is the party of our national interest. It therefore falls to us to win the debate for reform within Europe and for Europe with the British people to make sure exit doesn’t happen.”
Mr Lansley was tipped to become Britain’s member of the European Commission this autumn but Mr Cameron wanted to avoid a parliamentary by-election and so nominated Tory peer Lord Hill.
Neil Carmichael, the MP who chairs the group, said: “For too long the pro-European voice in the Conservative Party has been muted. There are many Conservative MPs and members in the country who want to see a confident United Kingdom remain part of a reformed EU.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies