David Cameron was accused on Monday of doing the “hokey-cokey” after he insisted he wanted Britain to stay in the EU but refused to rule out an in-out referendum if he was not able to negotiate a better deal with Brussels.
Mr. Cameron faced questions from MPs for more than an hour on Monday over his vague offer of an EU referendum, a policy designed to appease Conservative Eurosceptics but which has sown more uncertainty about Britain’s future in the EU.
The prime minister sent out a defiantly pro-business message—and was heard in silence by Tory MPs—when he said: “I support our [EU] membership—the single market is vital to us.”
Mr. Cameron said it was essential that Britain did not just have access to the single market but that it played a role in shaping its rules. He said he would not swap Britain’s position for that of a country like Norway which “only has access” to the single market.
But in a sign of his precarious political balancing act, Mr. Cameron also refused to rule out the possibility of one day giving British people a choice on whether to follow the Norwegian model by leaving the EU altogether.
“I do not believe the status quo is acceptable,” he said. “But just as I believe it would be wrong to have an immediate in-out referendum, so it would also be wrong to rule out any type of referendum in the future.”
The contortions were derided by Ed Miliband, Labor leader, as the result of a “weekend hokey-cokey”. He said: “A nudge-nudge, wink-wink policy is not good for the country nor will it keep his party quiet.”
Mr. Cameron faces considerable pressure to toughen up his policy in Europe, not least with the UK Independence Party close to 10 percent in some polls and threatening to deprive the Tories of key marginal seats at the next election.
Liam Fox, former defense secretary, stepped up the pressure on Monday when he called for Britain’s membership to be renegotiated with a referendum to follow on what had been agreed. Dr Fox said leaving the EU should not be excluded.
The benches behind Mr. Cameron were scattered with Tory MPs who believe the prime minister’s offer of a possible referendum at some undefined point in the future on an undisclosed question is far from credible.
Conor Burns was among those calling on Mr. Cameron to legislate in this parliament for a referendum after the 2015 election, but was rebuffed by a prime ministerial appeal to show “tactical and strategic patience”.
Bill Cash, the veteran Eurosceptic, cited a sympathetic London cabby who said Mr. Cameron would be re-elected by a large majority if he ditched the Liberal Democrats and held an EU referendum.
Mr. Cameron argued that an in-out referendum might be a disaster for the Eurosceptics because it could deliver a majority in favor of Britain staying in the EU on its current terms.
He added that a renegotiated settlement could follow once it has become clear how the euro zone is going to resolve its current crisis and the extent to which it leads to a tighter-knit EU core.
But Mr. Cameron’s call for a renegotiation rests on the willingness of other EU countries to agree unanimously to cut Britain a special deal; France’s socialist government may be among those with other ideas.
Even if Mr. Cameron got some of what he wanted in a renegotiation, Downing Street refused to say what might happen if the semi-deal was rejected by the British people. Would Mr. Cameron then advocate withdrawal from the EU? Downing Street described such a scenario as “speculation”.