An in/out referendum on Europe in 2017 has always been on the Conservative agenda, though it is only now that senior figures are stating how they would vote. Despite the economic attractions of remaining part of the EU, a number of leading Tories are coming forward to openly say that they would vote 'out' if a referendum were to be held now.
Tension surfaced when former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lawson said that the economic gains of remaining part of the union "would substantially outweigh the costs", and that David Cameron's attempts at treaty negotiations would be "inconsequential". Pursuing his argument further, Lawson continued:
"The heart of the matter is that the very nature of the European Union, and of this country's relationship with it, has fundamentally changed after the coming into being of the European monetary union and the creation of the eurozone, of which - quite rightly - we are not a part. Not only do our interests increasingly differ from those of the eurozone members but, while never 'at the heart of Europe' (as our political leaders have from time to time foolishly claimed), we are now becoming increasingly marginalised as we are doomed to being consistently outvoted by the eurozone bloc."
Lawson's rhetoric was echoed last week by Education Secretary Michael Gove after he openly stated on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that he would vote for Britain to exit the EU if relations do not change. Asked by James Landale, the BBC's Deputy Political Editor, if he would vote 'out' if a referendum were to be held now, Mr Gove replied: “Yes, I’m not happy with our position in the European Union".
This view was later voiced by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond who, when speaking on Radio 5 live, stated that he too would vote to leave the EU under the current circumstances, though he predicted that Cameron would be able to secure more acceptable conditions.
Dismissing the headlines across the Sunday papers, Mr Gove stated that the Conservatives were not at war with each other commenting that “you can’t have a civil war when everyone’s on the same side". However, the opinions that have been expressed by Lawson and others do not reflect the view of the Prime Minister: "I want to give people a choice not between the status quo and leaving the European Union", he said at a conference on Somalia in London.
"I want to give people a proper choice between Britain remaining in a reformed EU or leaving that EU. That's the choice that people will have. That is the choice that people want. And there is only one way to get it and that will be by supporting the Conservatives at the next election. Frankly, I welcome the attention that is being put on this very clear promise".
Currently travelling around the United States in order to make the case for a new EU-US trade deal which could help to build a more dynamic and sustainable world economy, Cameron is being hailed with questions from home about where he stands with his party on Europe. Stealing the limelight from his US agenda in which he is discussing Syria, the G8 summit and the Boston bombings, his attention is being forced on to Europe at every press conference he attends. Clearly, it would be in America's interests for Britain to stay in the EU, an opinion which was confirmed by President Barack Obama who gently commented that if something is broken, it should be fixed before a drastic move (leaving the union) is made.
With a rising number of Conservatives calling for a referendum before 2017 and the unlikely chances of this happening given that their coalition partners do not agree, the Europe question is going to be argued and debated for some time to come. With Cameron out of the country and Westminster reeling in drama, the Prime Minister needs to convince his party as well as the electorate that he is serious about a referendum on Europe and that the final decision will be made in Britain's best interests.
By Emily Stacey