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LONDON: British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday played down the prospect of a referendum any time soon on whether Britain should leave the European Union, defying calls from within his Conservative Party and the public.
Cameron is expected to explain how he wants to change Britain’s relationship with the EU next week, in a speech that could set a course for leaving the 27-member bloc, deepen fractures within his own party, and strain ties with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.
A weekend poll by influential website ConservativeHome found that 78 percent of Conservative Party members either want Britain’s relationship with the EU reduced to access to its common market or to leave the bloc altogether.
“If we had an in-out referendum tomorrow, or very shortly, I don’t think that would be the right answer for the simple reason that I think we would be giving people a false choice,” Cameron told BBC radio. “Right now I think there are a lot of people who say ‘I would like to be in Europe, but I’m not happy with every aspect of the relationship, so I want it changed’. That is my view.”
Conservative infighting over Europe helped topple previous party leaders, and splits on the issue appear to be deepening as Cameron’s speech nears. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, a Conservative, said that he hoped it was in Britain’s interest to stay in the EU, but “we shouldn’t stay at any price”.
Both pro and anti-Europe senior politicians stepped up their campaigns over the weekend, with eurosceptic Conservative group “Fresh Start” pledging to demand a radical repatriation of powers from Brussels this week.
Conservative Party grandee Michael Heseltine said on Saturday that Cameron’s plan to change Britain’s relationship with the EU was an “unnecessary gamble”, and put the country’s status as a business destination at risk. The Lib Dems, the Conservatives’ junior partners in coalition rule, are pro-Europe, and divisions over the issue threaten to put renewed strain on the partnership.