POLITICS

David Cameron Hits Back Over Europe As Ghost Of John Major Returns To Haunt The Tory Party

13/05/2013 13:32 BST | Updated 13/05/2013 16:08 BST

David Cameron has hit out at his anti-EU ministers as the ghost of John Major returned to haunt his premiership.

The prime minister dismissed comments by senior Tory Cabinet ministers who said they would vote to sever links with Brussels if a referendum was held tomorrow, accusing them of "throwing in the towel".

It comes after the Daily Mail named nine Cabinet members who would want to quit the EU if Cameron failed to win back powers for Britain.

The episode has echoes of Major's lengthy battle with the "bastards" - his name for the staunch eurosceptics on his frontbench who made his life a nightmare.

The weekend's newspapers were dominated by reports of a Tory "civil war" on Europe - and on Sunday, Education Secretary Michael Gove confirmed he would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held tomorrow.

On Monday morning, Major's former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, attacked the rebels, saying they were being "silly" and showing "very foolish tactical judgement” .

Cameron hoped he had placated the eurosceptics when he promised a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU - once he has tried to renegotiate Britain's powers with Brussels.

But that is not enough for many within the Tory party, and backbenchers are campaigning to amend the Queen's speech to settle the matter immediately.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today Programme, Rifkind said: "What they’re doing is putting the Prime Minister in an impossible situation.

"He cannot simply vote for this amendment because it would split the Coalition right down the middle. But at the same time, the motion cannot win, because there is not a parliamentary majority for it. This amendment isn’t going to get carried.

"So all those supporting it will have achieved is, they will have split their own party, they will, as you have seen, cast questions over the Prime Minister’s authority, and indirectly, unintentionally, they will be helping the Labour Party’s prospects at the next election.”

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According to the Mail, Gove and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond - who confirmed he would vote to leave unless significant powers were repatriated - would be joined by Chris Grayling (Justice), Owen Paterson (Environment), Iain Duncan Smith (Work and Pensions), Theresa Villiers (Northern Ireland) and Cabinet Officer ministers Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin.

Duncan Smith was himself a thorn in Major's side over Europe, voting with Labour on a number of occasions to oppose the Maastricht treaty - prompting Major's now-infamous 'Don't bind my hands' plea over Europe to his backbench rebels.

Cameron is under similar pressure following his party's worst showing in local elections since the drubbing Major received in 1995.

Nigel Farage's Ukip squeezed the Tory vote, winning more than 100 council seats, while Major was opposed by the anti-EU Referendum Party formed by Sir James Goldsmith.

Pressure for action from the Tory right has been fuelled in recent days by exit calls from party grandees including ex-chancellor Lord Lawson and former defence secretary Michael Portillo - one of Major's 'bastards'.

Cameron said: "The point I would make to those people is you should not give up before a negotiation has started. It seems to be an extraordinary way to go about things...

"The idea of throwing in the towel before the negotiations have even started I think is a very, very strange opinion."

The Tory leader also defended the free vote granted to backbenchers on a Commons amendment criticising the absence of a referendum Bill in the Queen's Speech.

Up to 100 Conservatives are expected to vote in favour of the amendment this week - although Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition means it is certain to fail.

"I think it is a very sensible approach," he told reporters. "Coalition does throw up different circumstances."

The prime minister again refused to echo comments by Gove and Hammond.

But he gave his strongest suggestion yet that he would support a British exit if renegotiation efforts were unsuccessful.

"The problem with the status quo is I don't think that the status quo in the EU is acceptable today," Mr Cameron said.

"I want to change it and having changed it I then want to ask the British people a very simple in/out question."

Major himself has backed Cameron's strategy, but admitted it was a "gamble".

"The relationship with Europe has poisoned British politics for too long, distracted Parliament from other issues, and come close to destroying the Conservative Party. It is time to resolve the matter," the former premier said in March.