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David Cameron: EU referendum 'a battle for Britain'

Published 24/02/2016

Prime Minister David Cameron's drive for Britain to remain in the EU has been backed by 13 former military chiefs
Prime Minister David Cameron's drive for Britain to remain in the EU has been backed by 13 former military chiefs

The European Union referendum will be a "battle for Britain", David Cameron declared, as he launched the Conservative campaign for a vote to stay in.

The Prime Minister promised a "greater Britain" with benefits to trade, security and the UK's influence on the world stage as he addressed supporters.

But with the Tory party deeply divided on the issue, Mr Cameron warned a Brexit would be a "great leap in the dark".

Addressing a Conservatives In rally in central London, the Prime Minister urged Tory activists to campaign with "as much force as you can" to sell his deal with Brussels on the doorstep.

Setting out what is at stake, he said the referendum was about more than simply the party politics of a general election.

He said: "This is going to be a battle for Britain, a battle for the future of our country, the sort of country that we want for our children and our grandchildren.

"No-one cares more than me about winning the next election in 2020 and the one after that.

"But you can elect in politicians, you can elect out politicians - we don't like that bit, I know, when it happens.

"But this is about what sort of a country we are going to be - how wealthy we can be, successful in a single market, or how much uncertainty you can have outside.

"How safe we can be, working with our partners in the EU in combating crime and terrorism. Or how unsafe we can be outside it.

"How strong we can be with a country that has definitely got its momentum back, the economy is growing - others around the world are looking to us about how to sort out your economy, how to be stronger.

"The crucial point is this: we can be stronger inside that reformed EU."

He added: "We can have a greater Britain inside a reformed European Union, or we can have a great leap in the dark."

Mr Cameron was flanked by Government ministers including Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and Europe minister David Lidington as he launched the campaign.

But the rally came at the end of a bruising day where divisions within the upper ranks of the Tory party had been laid bare as Justice Secretary Michael Gove cast doubt on key elements of the deal Mr Cameron had thrashed out in Brussels.

Mr Gove and justice minister Dominic Raab insisted that the European Court of Justice would not be bound by the agreement, which was being lodged with the United Nations on Wednesday.

But Downing Street said that registering the agreement with the UN "put beyond doubt the fact that it is legally binding and irreversible in international law", while the Government's senior law officer, Attorney General Jeremy Wright, insisted that the ECJ "must take it into account".

The row came as Number 10 was forced to apologise to special forces general Sir Michael Rose after incorrectly including his name in a letter from senior military commanders warning that Brexit posed a threat to security.

Sir Michael complained after finding his name on the letter to the Telegraph, in which a group of former senior military commanders said leaving the EU could hamper the UK's ability to tackle threats such as Islamic State or Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Downing Street, which arranged the letter, blamed "an administrative error".

Meanwhile, the head of the International Monetary Fund warned that British withdrawal would be bad for both the UK and the EU.

Christine Lagarde told CNN: "My hunch ... is that it is bound to be a negative on all fronts. For those that stay, because there are fewer of them, and for those who go, because they lose the benefit of [that] facilitation of exchange."

The Prime Minister set out the economic risk of a Brexit in his rallying cry, warning that Britain would face a two-year delay after a Leave vote before it could negotiate new trade agreements with the rest of the world.

He indicated the UK's successful motor industry could be at risk, warning that outside the EU it could have to pay a tariff on every car it sold to Europe, while other manufacturers and service businesses would face uncertainty about access to markets.

"Businesses hate uncertainty and that's what we would give them," said Mr Cameron. "I have no doubt in my mind we are better off in a reformed EU and we have got to make that argument right across the country."

Mr Cameron said he was "sceptical" about the EU: "We are sceptical, we do have our problems with the EU and we should be plain about that. That's what my negotiation has been all about. We've always believed that this organisation is too much of a political union and that's why we are now carved out permanently from a political union.

"We've always been worried in recent years it's become too much of a single currency club and that's why with my renegotiation we've guaranteed that the pound, our currency, our businesses, our financial services, cannot be discriminated against within the European Union. That really matters."

He also urged people to listen to the leaders of Britain's allies and trading partners, who have called for the UK to remain in the EU.

As Mr Gove made his first major intervention in the referendum campaign since backing Brexit, his wife Sarah Vine wrote in her Daily Mail column that he had been "locked in an internal struggle of agonising proportions", but had chosen his "own heartfelt beliefs" over "loyalty to his old friend, the Prime Minister".

The Justice Secretary insisted the EU has held Britain back and said the nation would recover its "mojo" outside the 28-member bloc.

Mr Gove said the failure of the single currency and problems with migration showed the EU was an "old-fashioned model".

"I think it would be a tremendous opportunity for Britain to recover its mojo, for Britain to be a more flexible, outward-looking, creative place," he told the BBC.

"The nature of the European Union is bureaucracy. The failure of the single currency, the problems that it has had with migration, all of them point to the fact that it is an old-fashioned model. It's sclerotic, it's out of date."

On the legal force of the reform package, Mr Gove insisted that Mr Cameron had not misled voters, but added: "The European Court of Justice stands above every nation state, and ultimately it will decide on the basis of the treaties and this deal is not yet in the treaties."

But Downing Street's interpretation of the status of the deal was backed by European Council president Donald Tusk, who told the European Parliament the package was "legally binding and irreversible" and "cannot be annulled by the European Court of Justice".

Mr Tusk poured cold water on suggestions that the EU might offer a better deal if the UK votes to leave on June 23, telling MEPs: "The European Union will respect the decision of the British people. If the majority votes to leave, that is what will happen. It will change Europe forever and it will be a change for the worse."

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker described the deal as "fair", telling MEPs: "The UK Prime Minister got the most he could obtain and the other member states offered him as much as they could offer."

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, said Mr Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson were engaged in a "glorified cock-fight".

"I have seen ambitious politicians ... but Boris Johnson takes it to a whole other level, because he is the mayor of London acting against the interests of the citizens of London from personal ambition, and certainly not for a better Europe and a better Britain," the former Belgian prime minister told MEPs.

"It's bonkers."

Downing Street confirmed that, as a supporter of the Leave campaign, Mr Gove would now not have access to official papers relating to the referendum.

The restriction on documents applies to all Brexit-supporting ministers, in line with guidance issued by Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood on Tuesday.

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