Danny Alexander has attacked Tory demands for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union as “totally wrong”.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s intervention came as a poll showed backing for Scottish independence could increase if voters think the UK is likely to withdraw from the EU.
The Lib Dem Cabinet minister said that an in/out vote on EU membership was the “wrong priority” for the UK at a time of economic uncertainty.
His comments put Prime Minister David Cameron under further pressure yesterday, with members of his party saying he was “running scared” of backbenchers.
He was also warned by Labour peer and former EU commissioner Lord Mandelson, who said pulling out of the EU would be a “great setback economically” for the UK, as it would lose its influence over the single market.
He said: “The ‘UK isolation party’ and their fellow travellers in the Conservative Party are operating a Sopranos-style protection racket inside the Conservative Party.
“They are saying, ‘Do what we want, give us what we are demanding or we are going to burn your home down.’ In my view, the Prime Minister has got to say enough is enough.”
Mr Alexander insisted that enough parliamentary time had been spent on debating Europe and it was “time to move on”.
He said: “I don’t think it’s right to pursue an in/out referendum. It’s the wrong priority for the country at a time when the economy is starting to show more momentum. Dragging ourselves through a new debate on Europe is totally wrong.” Meanwhile, the Panelbase poll of 1,004 people recorded support for independence at 36 per cent when it asked “should Scotland be an independent country?”
A total of 44 per cent answered no, and a further 20 per cent said they did not know.
When asked “how would you be likely to vote in next year’s Scottish independence referendum if the UK was looking likely to vote to withdraw from the EU?”, 44 per cent said they would be likely to vote yes, matched by 44 per cent likely to vote no, while 12 per cent said they did not know.
The poll was published as former foreign secretary Lord Howe warned Mr Cameron was losing control of his party as its “long, nervous breakdown” over Europe continues.
Lord Howe, whose differences with Baroness Thatcher over Europe led to his resignation and triggered her downfall, said Mr Cameron had “opened a Pandora’s box politically” through his plan to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU.
The Conservative grandee, who also served as Baroness Thatcher’s first chancellor, said Mr Cameron was “running scared” of his backbenchers and had allowed Euroscepticism to “infect the very soul of the party”.
The peer’s stark warning comes after another Lord Lawson, another former chancellor, called on the UK to leave the EU saying that any gains “would substantially outweigh the costs” in a sign of the deepening split within the Conservatives.
However, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted the Tory party was “absolutely united” on the issue of Europe and Lord Howe’s views did not “represent the reality” of the situation.