DAVID Cameron faces a pincer attack over Europe with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg ready to launch a broadside against his coalition partner’s EU referendum pledge and a prominent Tory backbencher calling for the vote to be brought forward.
In a sign that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives intend to continue their increasingly acrimonious war of words beyond the party conference season, Mr Clegg will use a speech to describe the Prime Minister’s promise of a referendum on EU membership in 2017 as “deeply flawed”.
Backbench Tory Adam Afriyie yesterday threatened to undermine the party’s recent unity over Europe by suggesting the referendum should be held next year.
As MPs return to Westminster, the Prime Minister’s Europe woes looks set to overshadow a widely predicted reshuffle by Mr Cameron, expected to focus largely on junior ranks, which in turn will trigger a more fundamental shake-up of Labour’s frontbench team.
Last night it was revealed that Deputy Chief Whip John Randall and Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith had resigned their Ministerial posts ahead of the expected reshuffle.
Mr Randall, the 58-year-old Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, said in his resignation letter that he had indicated at the end of last year that he wished to step aside.
Mr Clegg, the MP for Sheffield Hallam, will say tomorrow that the coalition should be focused on economic recovery and a referendum should wait for the next “serious change” to EU rules.He will say threatening to leave Europe to win concessions from Brussels is “playing with fire” and describe an EU exit as “economic suicide”.
The attack on Mr Cameron from his coalition partners will keep Europe at the top of the political agenda, coming in the wake of Windsor MP Mr Afriyie’s call for an earlier EU referendum.
The Prime Minister soothed Tory tensions over Europe earlier this year by endorsing a backbench Bill promising a referendum in 2017 which enjoys party-wide support.
Mr Afriyie, who has denied having leadership ambitions, yesterday threatened an amendment to move the date to 2014 but last night looked short of supporters as members of the Tories’ pro and anti-EU wings united in their criticism.
Selby and Ainsty MP Nigel Adams said the amendment would give Labour the chance to “play politics” with the referendum Bill.
“It is a bizarre intervention when we already have a Bill that will give the British people an in-out referendum,” he said.
“I suspect this has ended any aspirations he has to lead the party which were about as realistic as me winning the 100m at the Olympics.”
James Wharton, the backbench MP sponsoring the European Union (Referendum) Bill, said any amendments played into the hand of opposition parties seeking to block the legislation.
“I hope MPs will decline to support it as the ultimate impact might well be to kill my Bill, which would only help those who don’t want any referendum at all,” he said.
Ed Miliband is also expected to resuffle his shadow cabinet, with Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves predicted to be among those promoted.
The Leeds West MP could become Shadow Health Secretary, replacing Andy Burnham who is threatening legal action against his opposite number, Jeremy Hunt. Mr Hunt suggested on Twitter that Mr Burnham had suppressed a report into failing hospitals while in Government.