Ken Clarke Attacks 'Frenzied Eurosceptic' Tory Backbenchers

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KEN CLARKE
Ken Clarke has attacked Tory MPs who want a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU | PA

MPs calling for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union have been dismissed by a Tory Cabinet minister as "a few extreme nationalist politicians".

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said there was little public demand for an in-out vote and insisted voters are not as deeply eurosceptic as critics of Brussels suggest.

Tory backbenchers have been increasing pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to promise a referendum in a bid to blunt the challenge of the UK Independence Party.

Dozens have signed up to the People's Pledge campaign, which is staging votes around the country to gauge support - with the first showing 89.9% in favour.

But Clarke, among the most pro-European Tories, said it was a "ridiculous" idea that would do nothing the end the complaints of "frenzied" eurosceptics.

Asked if he accepted that voters were deeply eurosceptic, he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "The nation is a bit eurosceptic.

"The nation is extremely worried about present events, as well we might be. We all feel insecure, we all feel worried, we are hoping that a strong government will take us through and some difficult measures are required.

"The idea that they are all demanding a referendum on the European Union would be regarded as ridiculous, it would be out of sight as a public priority.

"It is the demand of a few right-wing journalists and a few extreme nationalist politicians."

Clarke expressed surprise that the coalition was not even more unpopular than it was.

"I have seen, mid-term, much greater turmoil than this. I've been in governments having much more trouble than this.

"Actually I am amazed that the Government is retaining the support it is," he said.

"There is not a government in Western Europe could win an election at the moment because strong governments have to do unpopular things.

"It's a credit to the public actually - they realise we have to do unpopular things."

A referendum would "throw absolute confusion" over the UK's involvement in the EU, undermining efforts to retain the faith of the markets in the economy, he suggested.

"I can't think of anything sillier to do."

After the last referendum - in 1975 - opponents of the EU immediately ignored the "yes" result, he said.

"It would settle nothing. Particularly it would settle nothing with the more frenzied eurosceptics who keep believing that European bogies are under the bed."