As the Prime Minister faced criticism from Tory activists and former ministers, a group of pro-EU business leaders made their latest call for Britain to stay in Europe even as the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (Ukip) hit record levels of support.
The 19 business leaders including Sir Richard Branson and Sir Martin Sorrell have written to The Independent claiming that EU membership is worth up to £92bn a year and saying that Eurosceptic politicians are putting their own interests ahead of the UK’s. The Business for New Europe group argues in a letter in The Independent: “On exiting the EU, we would lose not the benefits of all 37 [free trade agreements] already in existence. Renegotiating these would be costly, time-consuming and the UK alone would lack the colossal bargaining power of the EU.”
Business for Britain, a campaign that wants to reduce the EU’s powers, hit back at the claims, saying: “No one should pretend [reform] will be easy or, as this letter implies, that the way our relationship with Brussels is formed currently is especially beneficial for businesses in Britain. Those who have long championed the EU should stop turning a blind eye to its many failures.”
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, claimed yesterday the Tories were united over Europe, even as former chancellor Lord Howe said the party was out of control and that Cameron was “running scared” of his own backbenchers. Hunt told the BBC: “If you look at the substance of the issue, the Conservative Party is absolutely united...we need to renegotiate our relationship with Europe and give the British people a say.”
Despite his claims, the Conservative leadership has been left reeling by revelations that a senior Tory called his party members “swivel-eyed loons.”
Meanwhile, a group of 34 local party chairmen wrote to Cameron saying that they are being shown “utter contempt” over gay marriage – which returns to the Commons tomorrow for a vote – and Europe.
On Saturday night, an opinion poll for ComRes put Ukip on 19 per cent against the Tories’ 29 per cent.