Heseltine lambasts Europe rebels

Owen Paterson on the Andrew Marr Show today
Owen Paterson on the Andrew Marr Show today
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TORY grandee Lord Heseltine has rounded on MPs putting pressure on David Cameron over Europe and told them to be more loyal to a leader who has just won an election.

The former deputy prime minister warned Conservative eurosceptics they were in danger of hampering the Prime Minister’s efforts to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the European Union.

Conservative tensions over Europe were exposed last week as the legislation for the promised referendum on EU membership progressed through the Commons and will remain on the agenda this week as the Prime Minister embarks on another tour of European capitals.

Mr Cameron was expected to face splits in his party over Europe as the referendum approached but he is already under fire from some eurosceptics just weeks after delivering an unexpected election triumph.

Lord Heseltine said: “Virtually without doubt, with the remarkable work of George Osborne, it is David Cameron who won that election for the Conservative Party and I would have hoped that, given that there is going to be a referendum, people would understand the complexity of what he’s got to do and the prizes he might win and not confuse his negotiation with a sort of backdrop of campaigning which, in my experience, can only confuse the job he has to do and make it harder,” he said.

It was reported that the Conservatives for Britain initiative, which ostensibly supports Mr Cameron’s renegotiation but is preparing to campaign for a ‘no’ vote if it is deemed unsuccessful, now has the support of 110 MPs and the private backing of some Ministers.

As many as 80 Conservatives are also said to be ready to back an amendment to the Bill paving the way for the referendum that would reinstate rules preventing Government or EU resources being used to sway votes.

The Government has proposed suspending the ‘purdah’ rules that normally apply at elections insisting the circumstances of the referendum would make them unworkable.

Former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson told the BBC: “It is unacceptable that there will be no limit to local government, national government or above all European government agencies spending money and sending information to citizens. That is going to skew the whole thing.

“This is a heartfelt plea to the Government: if it is seen to be rigged, if the British people don’t think it’s fair, then whatever the result it won’t be seen to be legitimate and this whole issue will fester further.

“If this whole issue is swamped up to polling day it will not be a fair poll, so I really would ask the Government very simply just to withdraw this whole thing and go back to the 28 days.

“We really don’t want an argument over this; it is totally home-made.”

The Sunday Times also reports that the ‘no’ camp has recruited a consistent critic of the PM - ex-Michael Gove aide Dominic Cummings - to advise on its setting up.

A Labour-led No campaign is also expected to be launched this week, backed by major party donor John Mills.

Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna said Labour should not campaign alongside David Cameron or other Tories for a ‘yes’ vote to remain in the EU.

But he denied Labour’s downfall in Scotland was due to it joining Tories to campaign for the maintenance of the union during the independence referendum last year.