Former prime minister Sir John Major accused eurosceptics of using “bogus” arguments and said it was a “fantasy” that the UK could somehow be better off outside the EU as senior Conservatives clashed over the in-out referendum on Europe.
Sir John’s intervention came as former defence secretary Dr Liam Fox said cabinet ministers should be allowed to campaign to leave without losing their jobs, arguing that it was “effectively a matter of conscience”.
Dr Fox called on David Cameron “to end the pretence” of EU renegotiation and back an “out” vote at the referendum the Prime Minister has promised before the end of 2017.
Sir John said: “The argument that the eurosceptics have been advancing – since before the Prime Minister set out his aims – that it would be trivial is a good arguing point for them but it is essentially bogus when you look at the detail.
“Eurosceptics say this is meaningless and trivial, and in fact it embraces many of the things they have been asking for for a very long time.”
Sir John said the UK would be less safe, less prosperous and less influential outside the EU, warning a vote to leave would be definitive.
He added: “It’s not politically credible to go back and say ‘we’ve reconsidered, let’s have another referendum’. If we vote out then we are out and we will have to get on with it and face the consequences.”
However, Sir John, who faced regular party rebellions over Europe as prime minister in the 1990s, said it would be “extraordinary” if ministers chose to break ranks now.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I spent the best part of seven years trying to keep a party at civil war over Europe together. And I think it would be extraordinary if anybody decided to campaign against Cabinet policy at least until the negotiations are completed.
“When the negotiations are completed, I would very much hope that they would not wish to campaign against the Cabinet.
“This is bigger than the Conservative Party. The argument for the sake of the country is very important. And people deserve to hear a clear-cut argument, not an internecine piece of party strife.”
Dr Fox said “out” camps needed to “speak with a much greater, much more unified voice than they have had up to this point” and that he would “definitely” share a platform with Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
“The more that we are able to give freedom to colleagues and the more we treat one another’s views with respect and tolerance, the easier it will be for us to come together after the referendum to continue to run the country,” he said