LABOUR and the Liberal Democrats turned up the heat on David Cameron last night as he struggled to stop his party tearing itself apart over Europe.
With just over a week until the Prime Minister’s crunch speech on Britain and the EU, Ed Miliband insisted it would be “wrong” to promise a referendum, and accused Mr Cameron of “sleepwalking us towards the exit door”.
Meanwhile, Lib Dem Cabinet minister Danny Alexander warned that the consequences of leaving the grouping were so drastic that no responsible politician would contemplate it.
The interventions came as Tory europhiles launched a fightback against demands for an in-out referendum.
Cabinet minister Ken Clarke is to share a platform with Labour peer Lord Mandelson later this month to stress the benefits of remaining in the union.
The pair are launching a new cross-party organisation, the Centre for British Influence through Europe (CBIE), to make the “patriotic” case for British engagement. About 20 Tory MP have also apparently signed a letter, due to be published this week, warning of “massive damage” if the UK leaves the EU.
Rumours are swirling that Downing Street has given tacit approval to efforts to highlight the dangers of an exit. In an unusual intervention last week, senior US diplomat Philip Gordon openly stated that America wanted Britain to remain in the EU.
And another Conservative “Big Beast”, Lord Heseltine, waded into the row over the weekend by warning that the economy would suffer if Mr Cameron took a “punt” next week and committed to a referendum on membership.
However, the party’s eurosceptics are determined to maintain pressure on Mr Cameron, buoyed by Chancellor George Osborne’s recent comments that the UK can only stay in the EU if it changes. The Fresh Start Group of Conservative MPs is set to demand that swathes of powers covering crime, justice and policing are clawed back from the EU.
In a manifesto being published on Wednesday, it will call for the repatriation of more than 130 powers which it claims are vital to retain “national democratic accountability”, protect British interests and resist the rise of the EU superstate.
Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Miliband ruled out promising a referendum on Britain’s relationship with Europe before the future shape of the EU was clear.
The Labour leader said Mr Cameron’s handling of the situation was “incredibly dangerous”.
“I think he is essentially sleepwalking us towards the exit door of the EU,” he said. “The last thing we should do is start saying for some date five, six, seven years hence, let’s decide now to have an in-out referendum.
“He is worried about the threat from Ukip and he is worried about what is happening in his own party.
“It is the wrong thing to do. It is not in the national interest. The questions for now are: ‘Should we have a referendum? Should we commit to a referendum? Should we promise one?’ I’m saying very clearly to you: ‘No is the answer.’”