The Conservative Party civil war escalated today as David Cameron condemned one of his own ministers for suggesting Britain could not block Turkey from joining the European Union.
In an extraordinary two hours of political television underlining the tensions in the run-up to the June 23 EU referendum, Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt told the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show that the UK would have “no say” over whether Turkey was allowed in to the union.
It is the centrepiece of a Vote Leave campaign claiming that “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU” - warning of the impact on public services and national security.
But just minutes later, the Prime Minister appeared on ITV's Peston on Sunday and said the move would happen “in about the year 3000”, and rejected Mordaunt's suggestion the UK did not have a veto as “absolutely wrong”.
The row revolves around Justice Secretary Michael Gove saying last week Britain's population could soar by 5.2 million by 2030 if Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are allowed to join the EU - giving them access to the bloc's freedom of movement rules.
Mordaunt doubled down on the warning, telling Marr when asked if the UK has a veto:
"No, it doesn’t. We are not going to be able to have a say. I do not think that the EU is going to keep Turkey out, I think the migrant crisis is pushing it more that way.
"If you're going to pursue that policy, and this is where we disagree with the Remain camp, you have got to allow us the tools to protect our own interests, to protect our national security, that we do not have."
But Cameron responded on Peston:
"Let me be clear. Britain and every other country in the European Union has a veto on another country joining. That is a fact.
"The fact that the Leave campaign are getting things as straightforward as this wrong, I think should call into question their whole judgement in making the bigger argument about leaving the EU.
"It is very important, they’re basically saying vote to get out of Europe because of this issue of Turkey that we can’t stop joining the EU. That is not true, we can stop Turkey becoming a member."
There may have been some added spice since Mordaunt criticised Cameron during the fall-out over the Panama Papers, telling BBC’s Sunday Politics last month the PM needs to show voters they can trust him following revelations about his tax affairs - which angered Downing Street.
Asked whether Mordaunt being “absolutely wrong” on the Turkey issue would put her job at risk, Cameron replied:
“Her responsibilities are in the Ministry of Defence, she’s doing a very good job and the Ministry of Defence is doing a very good job, but on this question of whether or not we have a veto, the Leave campaign are wrong."
The Remain campaign point to just two months ago how Boris Johnson, the Vote Leave cheerleader-in-chief said “Turkey will not join in the foreseeable future”, adding that it’s “simply not on the cards”.
Cameron seized on those remarks to Peston.
"Let’s be clear, as Boris himself said, Turkey joining the EU is not remotely on the cards. At the current rate of progress, it would be decades, literally decades before this even had a prospect of happening. Even at that stage we would be able to say no.”
The campaign has been marked by warnings from both sides over the economy and immigration, with both sides accused of - and accusing each other - of scaremongering.
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