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Why Conservative Eurosceptics Are Gaining Momentum

18/01/2016 16:26 GMT | Updated 18/01/2017 10:12 GMT

An In/Out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU could take place as early as June, though some members of Cameron's Cabinet have yet to voice which way they sway. Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers have both associated themselves with the antics of the "out" campaign, but Theresa May, Philip Hammond or Michael Fallon? When asked, they're generally "firmly behind the Prime Minister." Only some of them aren't. At least, not privately. Hammond has previously expressed his concerns with current EU treaty terms, as others have, though when pressed today they're quick to refrain from offering any insight into how they anticipate voting.

It's now thought that at least 130 Conservatives now consider themselves Eurosceptics, which, if the Prime Minister wants to keep party unity, is a factor he can't ignore. This is why he will be offering a free vote on Europe: to keep the backbench plotting to a minimum. Conservatives devoted to the endeavours of the "out" campaign have been active on this topic for years.

Back in February 2013, I attended a press briefing with two well-known Conservative Eurosceptics, already on board Team Out and keen to spread the word. They've been campaigning ever since. That same week journalists gathered around Andrea Leadsom, who emerged as the voice behind 'Fresh Start', a group of over 100 backbench Conservative MPs already calling for EU treaty changes, stressing that Britain could not accept Europe's "status quo." They had booklets heavier than your average BA thesis ready for us to takeaway - serious stuff. Team Out now have a flock of new recruits following more recent events in Brussels, which has only added to their momentum. But now they face competition. Team In, otherwise known as 'Conservatives for Reform in Europe', led by former minister Nick Herbert, believe that a vote to leave Europe would propel us into the unknown. Get reform first, before threatening our place on the international stage, is their key message.

Britain's last referendum over Europe was held back in 1975. Having just entered the Commons as Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher unenthusiastically backed Britain's membership of the EU in a bid to protect party unity and counter the 'Wets', fully aware of the pro-European stance of Ted Heath.

Years later, however, her position over Europe partly resulted in her downfall. Her refusal to accept the views of senior colleagues and her skepticism of the Foreign Office led to Geoffrey Howe's historic resignation, and ultimately her dramatic departure from number ten. Over 30 years on from Britain's first referendum the question of Europe is now too big an issue for one side to be excluded. The bureaucracy of Brussels has now expanded to ever more powerful ends, as the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has experienced first hand. Speaking to the Oxford Union last month Varoufakis declared Brussels "a democracy free zone...an authoritarian haven for a combination of irrationality and freedom." Though the Eurozone is formed on economic logic suited to the structure of all its member states, he stressed that this "does not mean that society is going to behave in a way that complies with these rules."

Indeed, under his watch, Greece wouldn't have. Cameron is aware that renegotiating EU treaty changes is his biggest gamble in this parliament. If the majority back him, his position is secure. But if electorate choose to turn against Europe, it would take mere days for a cluster of Eurosceptics to start mumbling the words "leadership challenge."