The Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated that he would be willing to fast track a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU if he is still in power beyond the general election in May. The comment is being interpreted as an olive branch to the UK Independence Party, who have previously said that a fast-tracked referendum would be one of the commitments they would want to secure before going into coalition with any party.
However, speaking on the BBC yesterday, Cameron made it clear that he would fire any minister campaigning to leave the EU in the event of a referendum, a promise which is conversely likely to sour relations with Ukip, who are committed to seeing Britain leave the EU.
Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage has previously indicated that, whilst a coalition partnership is unlikely, his party may be willing to lend support to a minority government on an issue by issue basis. He said: “I would regard it as unlikely that Ukip would want to be in coalition with anybody. But what you can do is give support to minority governments in return for what you want.” Ukip has made it very clear that they want to see a referendum on EU membership as soon as possible.
Farage added: “The Cameron offering [on an EU referendum], frankly, isn’t good enough in the sense that it’s all been kicked into 2017 following a renegotiation that looks highly improbable at any level.”
Mr Cameron’s comments came in an interview yesterday morning with the BBC’s Andrew Marr. Discussing the prospect of a referendum, he said “The referendum must take place before the end of 2017. If we could do that earlier, I’d be delighted.”
However, his conciliatory approach towards the referendum is likely to be undone by his insistence that he won’t offer a free vote to ministers on the question of British membership of the EU, but will insist that they back him. Mr Cameron plans to renegotiate the terms of membership, and take renegotiated terms to Britain as an alternative to leaving the Union altogether.
“There are Conservative members of Parliament who want to leave the European Union come what may,’ he told Marr. But, he insisted: “If you’re part of the government, then clearly you are part of the team is aiming for the renegotiation and a referendum.”
Asked whether he would offer ministers a free vote, he said decisively: “No, I’ve set that out very clearly in the past.”
On the subject of a possible coalition deal with Ukip, Mr Cameron refused to commit, saying “I hope you’re going to forgive me, and other interviewers will forgive me, that between now and the election I’m going to fight as hard as I can for a Conservative overall majority because I think that’s in the interests of our country.”
On Friday, Norman Tebbit, former chairman of the Tory party, warned that the only way that the Tories could secure a victory at the next general election would be if Ukip “implode”.
Ukip, who gained two MPs this summer at the expense of the Conservative party, already have the Tories on the ropes over immigration policy. Mr Cameron had promised to cut immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ when he first took power, but the latest figures showed that his party had fallen well short of their mark, as net migration hit 260,000 people last year.
Speaking to Marr, Cameron said: “The figures will be whatever the figures are. Obviously it’s very challenging at the moment with the British economy growing as fast as it is. We’ve been providing employment for a lot of people around Europe. Now I want to change that by making sure we not only have tough immigration controls but having welfare reform and education reform in our country so we prepare our own young people to do those jobs.”
He also hit out at Ukip, saying “Clearly they have got some politicians in their party who have some extraordinary views, there’s no doubt about this. You see day after day, week after week, them having to expel people because they have said appalling things about different sorts of people and people who choose different lifestyles. You’ve got people think gay marriage caused floods. They have clearly got some issues.
“What I choose to focus on is the positive vision I’ve got for the future and the real choice. Of course there are alternatives. People can vote in different ways, they can vote Green, they can vote Liberal, Labour, Ukip, SNP. But the fact as I see is all those options give you uncertainty, instability, the potential of chaos if it leads to a Miliband in Downing Street, Balls in the Treasury, debt-funded government.”