Senior Conservatives have rejected David Cameron’s claim that the EU reform deal he secured in Brussels will cut immigration, as new figures showed 172,000 migrants arrived from Europe last year.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and employment minister Priti Patel both said the only way to stem numbers of incomers was for Britain to regain control of its own borders. Ms Patel said the Prime Minister’s deal – which envisages a four-year emergency brake on migrants’ benefits – would “do nothing” to reduce arrivals.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
Her comments came as research found that Mr Cameron has yet to persuade half of his MPs to offer public support for his battle to keep Britain in the EU. As of late yesterday afternoon, some 158 of his 329 Commons colleagues had announced they will vote to remain, against 128 advocating Brexit and 44 undeclared.
Conservative MPs clashed over Europe in the House of Commons, where former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth launched an attack on the Prime Minister’s claim continued EU membership was good for Britain’s security.
By suggesting the EU has a role in the defence of Europe, the Aldershot MP said Mr Cameron was “playing into the hands” of supporters of an EU army and risked undermining Nato.
But Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond dismissed the charge, telling MPs: “We’ve always been very clear that any role of the European Union in relation to our defence must be complementary to and in no way undermine the role of Nato.”
Mr Hammond warned that goodwill towards Britain from its EU partners would “evaporate in an instant” if the UK votes to leave on 23 June.
“To those who say they will have to negotiate a sweetheart trade deal with the UK outside the EU, I say this: There will be no desire at all among the political elites of the remaining 27 member states to help an exiting Britain show that it can prosper outside the EU,” Mr Hammond told MPs.
“Quite the contrary: They will interpret a leave decision as two fingers from the UK and we can expect precisely the same in return.”
In a thinly veiled swipe at London Mayor Boris Johnson, who has floated the idea of a leave vote being followed by a second referendum under better terms, Mr Hammond said: “No individual, it doesn’t matter how charismatic or how prominent, has the right or the power to redefine unilaterally the meaning of the question on the ballot paper.”
As a number of Tory MPs tried to pick holes in Mr Cameron’s reform package, shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn told the Commons that, while Labour was divided and Conservatives united over Europe 40 years ago: “There has been a complete reversal of roles… History is repeating itself in mirror image.”
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron told workers at defence giant BAE Systems in Warton, Lancashire, that “the safe choice, the right choice, the pro-jobs choice, the pro-investment choice”, was to stay in a reformed EU.
Mr Cameron questioned how many of the UK’s three million jobs linked to trade with Europe would “truly be safe” if Britain quit the EU.
And he asked. “In a dangerous and uncertain world, why take the leap in the dark? That is at the heart of the case I am making.”