David Cameron has insisted his renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU has secured “fundamental” reforms, after he was accused of offering a “false prospectus” to voters in the June 23 referendum.
Veteran Eurosceptic Sir William Cash accused the PM of “cheating” referendum voters, because the outcome of the renegotiation did not allow him to guarantee change in the EU’s treaties before they cast their votes.
But Mr Cameron insisted the deal reached in Brussels in February delivered “fundamental” reform to remove Britain from the commitment to “ever-closer union”, guarantee equity of treatment for the pound and address concerns over migrant welfare.
Appearing before the House of Commons Liaison Committee for an extended grilling on the EU debate, the Prime Minister dodged repeated questions from chairman Andrew Tyrie over whether he would recommend continued membership of an unreformed Union.
Insisting that the status quo was not an option on offer in the June 23 ballot, Mr Cameron would say only: “I’m going to be voting to stay in a reformed EU on the basis of the choice in front of us.”
Committee member Sir William told the PM that his promise of “full-on treaty change” had “failed”, and the top legal adviser to the European Council had made clear he did not regard the reform package as “irreversible”.
The Conservative backbencher said: “When the voters vote on June 23, it will be a historic vote on your package as a whole.
“But as you cannot guarantee, or even offer, a treaty change before they go to the polling station and cast their votes, are you not thereby cheating the voters when they vote on that historic occasion?”
Sir William said that elements of the supposedly irreversible agreement could be overturned by court decisions, changes of government in any of the 28 EU states, or the results of referendums elsewhere in the Union.
He told the PM: “You are actually presenting the voters with a decision on June 23 based on a false prospectus, because it is not irreversible and you cannot say that it is.”
Mr Cameron said he was not “over-emphasising” the significance of the renegotiation deal, and stressed the referendum was not a judgment on his package, but on the wider issue of whether the UK should remain in the EU.
He insisted treaty change had been secured in key areas and cited the opinion of European law expert Sir Alan Dashwood QC that the deal was “irreversible in practice”.
“I fundamentally disagree with you,” the Prime Minister told Sir William. “I think when people go to the polls they should think about the whole issue – the EU as it’s going to be, or leaving. But I do think the renegotiation was successful and I believe it achieved some fundamental goals.”
And he added: “Let’s not argue that we’re doing all these things on false prospectuses. Let’s have an honest disagreement – you want to leave the EU, I want to stay in a reformed EU. We have a referendum because we have a Conservative Government and a Conservative Prime Minister.
“There’s lots of big things to talk about whether we are better off in or better off out. But accusing each other of false prospectuses when the legal opinion is very clear, I think is a waste of time.”
Mr Cameron insisted that he will stay on as Prime Minister to oversee withdrawal negotiations if Britain votes to leave on June 23.
“I think it’s quite important that this referendum is about Britain’s future in Europe, and it’s not about one team of politicians or another team of politicians or one person’s future or another person’s future,” said the Prime Minister.
“I don’t want anyone to cloud their decision-making with what the choice is about. It is in a reformed Europe or out. I will accept the verdict and do everything I can to put it in place.”
Labour committee member Frank Field challenged him: “So you are seriously thinking that if the vote goes against you, you can remain as Prime Minister?” Mr Cameron replied: “Yes.”
“And if the country thinks otherwise, you just ignore them?” asked Mr Field. “They would be voting against you and your recommendation.”
Mr Cameron insisted that he was “being very correct about having a mandate” from last year’s general election to deliver on the Conservative manifesto promise to hold a renegotiation followed by an in/out referendum and to abide by the result.
The Prime Minister denied that the Remain camp was running a “Project Fear” campaign to scare voters in to opting for EU membership with threats of the damage departure could do to the economy and jobs.
SNP committee member Pete Wishart warned that the use of “fanciful, exaggerated scare stories” could cost the Remain side votes, arguing that a similar approach had “squandered a 20-point lead” in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
Mr Cameron said: “I don’t accept that there are exaggerated stories.
“My argument in this referendum is that actually we will have a very bright and exciting future, not restrained by our membership of the EU but we will be a stronger, safer, better-off country, better able to punch above our weight on the world stage, get things done in the world, because we are a member of this organisation – just as we get a lot out of being a member of Nato, or the G7 or the G20.
“That’s my argument. It’s a positive argument. But are we right to warn people of the consequences if we were to leave – economic consequences, jobs consequences, World Trade Organisation tariff consequences? Yes, I think we are.
“I don’t want to wake up on June 24 to people saying ‘Well, Prime Minister, you didn’t set out all of the concerns and worries’.”
Asked whether he sometimes wished he had not called the referendum at all, Mr Cameron said: “No. I’m a believer in democracy.”
The Prime Minister told the committee he has changed his mind on how crucial the EU is to national security and warned the implications of Brexit are “very serious”.
He said: “One area where I have definitely changed my opinion is that I used to believe Nato, Five Eyes, partnership with America, police, intelligence services, that is how we deliver security, Europe has got nothing to do with security, I think I probably would have argued five or 10 years ago.
“There is no doubt in my mind that it has changed.”
Mr Cameron warned it would be “impossible” to get back into some systems, such as the European Arrest Warrant, and Britain would lose clout in others, such as Europol.
But the Prime Minister was accused of putting Britain’s security in jeopardy for the sake of assuaging his backbenchers with a referendum.
Labour’s Meg Hillier said: “Why as such a pro-European, you have chosen to put the UK’s security at such risk by putting forward the agenda of your party rather than the national security of this country?”
Mr Cameron said Britain should not object to EU defence operations if they were “the best way to get something done”, highlighting a mission to rid the seas of pirates in Somalia.
The Prime Minister also told the committee that eurozone countries will “probably” integrate further, but he insisted “Britain will not be part of it”.