Tory MPs have dismissed David Cameron's plan to renegotiate Britain's membership of the European Union, with eurosceptic backbenchers describing it as "a pig in a poke" and "purely symbolic".
On Tuesday morning, the prime minister set his main proposals to change the way the EU works ahead of a British referendum on our membership.
Cameron said the UK must be exempted from the commitment to "ever-closer union", be allowed to restrict benefits for migrants, get protection from eurozone integration, and see improvements in competitiveness.
But many of his MPs were left deeply unimpressed. Speaking in the Commons this afternoon, Jacob Rees-Mogg said Cameron was demanding nothing other than "pretty thin gruel" that would make "Harold Wilson's negotiation look acceptable".
Wilson was prime minister at the time of the 1975 referendum, the last popular vote on Britain's membership of the EU.
Veteran eurosceptic Bill Cash dismissed the strategy as a "pig in a poke" - a confidence trick.
Bernard Jenkin, the chairman of the public administration committee, asked icily: "Is that it? Is that the sum total of the government's position in this renegotiation?"
"Why we should put up with being a second-tier country in an increasingly centralised EU and losing more and more control?" he asked.
David Nuttall told ministers that today would "be looked back on as the day it became clear renegotiation amounts to nothing but tinkering around the edges".
And former trade secretary Peter Lilly said Cameron's declaration he wanted to exempt Britain from the EU's "ever closer union" policy was "purely symbolic". While Andrew Tyrie dismissed it as a "rhetorical gesture".
Europe minister David Lidington defended the government's plan. He insisted eurosceptic critics were underestimating the ambition of the prime minister's proposals as well as how tough it would be to secure victory. A new relationship with Brussels, he told his MPs, would not "fall easily into our laps".
However he admitted he was not having an easy ride from his own backbenchers. "I always strive to continue cheerful in this job," he told one Labour MP who noted the split on the Tory side.
In what cause further problems for Cameron with his MPs, he today paved the way for a retreat on his key demand to curb EU migrant benefits, admitting that there are "different ways" to get his welfare reforms.
The Tory general election manifesto stated explicitly that “We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years”.
Today, as leading European politicians warned that it would be ‘illegal’ to impose a four-year ban, Cameron conceded that he may have to be flexible.
“I understand how difficult some of these welfare issues are for other Member States. And I am open to different ways of dealing with this issue,” he said in his speech at Chatham House in central London.
He added: “But we do need to secure arrangements that deliver on the objective set out in the Conservative Party manifesto to control migration from the European Union.”
Cameron further suggested wriggle room in his plans, by stating “the precise form all these changes will take will be a matter for the renegotiation".Suggest a correction