Prime Minister David Cameron today began the daunting challenge of persuading Britain to stay in the European Union, declaring war on rebels within his Cabinet, a day after announcing a June 23 referendum on the UK’s membership of the 28-nation bloc.
The battle lines were drawn instantly within the Cabinet along the “Leave” or “Remain” campaign, with Priti Patel, the senior-most Indian-origin member of the Cabinet, coming out openly in favour of leaving the EU.
Ahead of the Prime Minister’s address to the parliament on the proposed EU deal struck in Brussels, the UK employment minister and Cameron’s Indian Diaspora Champion joined other senior colleagues like UK justice secretary Michael Gove and Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers.
“Leaving the EU will enable us to restore proper immigration controls, protect our borders, and prevent EU nationals from abusing our benefits and welfare system,” Patel told ‘The Sunday Times’.
“For too long the EU’s unaccountable institutions have meddled in our affairs, imposed unwelcome and costly laws on this country, prevented us from deporting those individuals who should not be in this country and they have taken money from hardworking taxpayers’ pockets.
Each week 350 million pounds of taxpayers money is sent to Brussels and this would be better spent in this country on our own priorities,” she said.
In his interview with the newspaper, Cameron in turn challenged these Eurosceptics to explain to the British public what the country’s relationship would be like with Europe if the UK voted to leave.
Cameron said: “The people who want out have got to explain what out is. Either you go for a Norway-style deal and you keep the access to the single market but with no say over the rules, no influence over its direction while paying into the budget and also signing up to free movement, or you try to go for a trade deal.
“Most trade deals take four, five, six years to negotiate and so the people who want to support that have got to set out what it means. If you have a deal like Norway you pay as much in per head but you have no say over the rules and you are subject to free movement.”
In another blow to the Prime Minister, senior Conservative party MP and London mayor Boris Johnson, who is said to be “genuinely conflicted”, is expected to also join the “Leave” camp.
Asked by the BBC if he would like to send Johnson a message, Cameron said: “I would say to Boris what I say to everybody else. We will be safer, we’ll be stronger, we’ll be better off inside the EU.”
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which leads the “Brexit” pack, dismissed the Prime Minister’s claims.
Party leader Nigel Farage told the BBC: “All he has asked for is some minor changes to migrant benefits and a couple of promises that might go in the next treaty. The truth of it is he can’t deliver this deal because the European Parliament can strike down the benefits deal and the European Court of Justice can rule out everything else.
“To say to people ‘please vote for this deal in a referendum’ when you can’t guarantee its delivery seems to me to be a rather weak position.”
Renegotiations of the UK’s relationship with Europe were finalised on Friday night after marathon talks at a two-day summit in Brussels.
The agreement, which will take effect immediately if the UK votes to remain in the EU, includes changes to allow curbs on migrant welfare payments, safeguards for Britain’s financial services and making it easier to block unwanted EU regulations.
The UK’s Election Commission takes charge of the referendum planning as soon as the date is officially cleared by Parliament, where it is expected to sail through with a majority.
The UK held a referendum in 1975 shortly after it had joined the common market that later became the EU. The vote was in favour of staying in, but there have been growing calls from the public and politicians for another vote.