A NORTH-East Tory MP hinted he would vote for Britain to quit the European Union (EU) if attempts to win back powers fail, ahead of a crunch speech by David Cameron tomorrow (Friday, January 18).
James Wharton, the Stockton South MP, said it was time to halt "continual interference" by Brussels across a range of policy areas including employment law, working hours limits, criminal justice, defence and foreign policy.
The backbencher urged the prime minister to promise a clear "in or out" choice when he sets out plans for a likely referendum on British membership, at the end of negotiations.
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And, asked how he would vote in that poll, Mr Wharton said: "It's too early to say. How I vote depends on what's on the table at that time, where Europe is at that time and what is in the British interest.
"But this is not about how I would vote - it's about what the British people want.
"What I hope we see from the prime minister's speech is a clear commitment to repatriate powers across a whole range of policy areas where the EU has gone beyond its original purpose as a core trading area.
"I hope he will then put a choice to the British people in a referendum."
But the prospect of a referendum in about 2018 - with five years of uncertainty about Britain's future in the interim - was condemned by Ian Swales, the Liberal Democrat MP for Redcar.
Mr Swales said: "Britain needs to be in the EU for business interests.
"Even uncertainty about our membership is damaging for investment and jobs, such as the Hitachi project [in County Durham]."
The clash came just hours before the prime minister, in a long-waited - and long delayed - speech sets out in which areas he will seek to renegotiate the UK's relations with the EU.
Mr Cameron will vow to put the new package to the British people, in about 2018, but is under growing pressure to say a 'no' vote in that referendum would be a decision to leave the EU altogether.
Mr Wharton argued defence and foreign policy were key areas for repatriation, saying: "The UK, for historic and economic reasons, has different aims."
He pointed to the so-called "Metric Martyrs" controversy as evidence that a tough stance could be popular in the North-East, adding: "It's no business of Europe whether we sell apples or bananas in pounds or kilograms."
And he dismissed claims of damage to Britain, saying: "I don't see how it can have either a negative - or a positive - impact on the economy to have a debate about our relationship with the EU."