LONDON (Reuters) - Eurosceptic members of Britain’s Conservative Party turned on their party leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, on Tuesday over his bid to renegotiate the country’s ties with the European Union, with one calling his proposals “thin gruel.”
After months of anticipation, Cameron published the four key areas in which he wants changes to the way the EU works, hoping to win over doubters who want Britain to vote to leave the bloc at a referendum due by the end of 2017.
While EU leaders gave Cameron’s proposals a cautious response clad in conciliatory language, members of his own party were far less diplomatic.
“Is that it? Is that the sum total of the government’s position in this renegotiation?” said visibly angry lawmaker, Bernard Jenkin, one of many dissatisfied Conservatives who stood up in parliament to voice discontent.
Cameron, who wants Britain to stay in a reformed EU, must not only persuade fellow EU leaders to give him what he wants, but also hold together a political party riven with decades-old disagreements on the merits of EU membership.
Vicious infighting over Europe led to the downfall of the last two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and John Major in 1997. The EU referendum, if mishandled, is seen in some quarters as a threat to Cameron’s term as prime minister.
Research published last month by the London-based Open Europe think tank, which lobbies for EU reform, found as many as one in five of Cameron’s members of parliament is likely to vote to leave the EU.
At the heart of the dissent in parliament on Tuesday was the sceptics’ belief that the government, having promised a fundamental reform, has not gone far enough to oppose what they see as the overreach of Brussels into domestic affairs.
“This is pretty thin gruel, much less than people had come to expect from the government,” said parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg. “It needs to do more. It needs to have a full list of powers that will be restored to the United Kingdom and to this parliament.”
One lawmaker sarcastically offered Cameron his thanks for setting out a reform agenda that he viewed as not far reaching enough.
“That allows Eurosceptics to say ‘no longer do we have to pretend there is going to be a substantial renegotiation’. We can get on and campaign to come out,” lawmaker Peter Bone said.
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt