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Sir John Major savages Stockton MP James Wharton's Euro Bill
SIR John Major yesterday (TUE) savaged a North-East Conservative MP’s Bill to try to guarantee an EU referendum – warning it would lose the party votes.
The former prime minister took a damaging swipe at Stockton South MP James Wharton’s legislation, arguing it showed the Tories obsessing about Europe.
And he attacked Europhobic Tories who claimed Brussels was “trampling over everything we care about”, saying: “It’s totally for the birds – it isn’t true.”
The comments, made to journalists at Westminster, will be seized on by critics who have argued Mr Wharton’s Bill is a fringe issue for most voters.
They are also embarrassing for David Cameron, who threw his weight behind it and imposed a three-line whip on is MPs to support the legislation.
The Bill – which returns to the Commons on November 8 – will set in law the prime minister’s commitment to an EU membership poll, in 2017, following a renegotiation of powers.
The Stockton South MP has argued it will bind the hands of the next Government, proving to voters that the referendum pledge is cast-iron.
But, quizzed at a Westminster lunch, Sir John said: “I’m not in favour of Mr Wharton’s Bill.”
Sir John said it might “pick up a few votes”, but added: “That number of votes would be eminently outnumbered by the number of people who would not vote for the Conservative party because, yet again, they are seen to be split on the subject of Europe.
“People do not vote for parties that cannot agree amongst themselves – and why should they? It’s understandable.
“So I think the Wharton Bill is a negative, not a positive, and it would be better to leave the referendum where it is and to begin the negotiations at an early stage.”
Sir John also urged his party to focus on everyday issues – “taxes, jobs, education, health and living conditions” – and “less on ideology and Europe”.
And he warned the Tories were a “fringe party in the North”, just as Labour was no longer a “national party”, because it won so few seats in the South.
But Mr Wharton rejected the former prime minister’s criticism, insisting his party was “really united behind the Bill” – and that the public was listening.
He said: “As the only party in Parliament offering a referendum - and on a sensible timetable, as set out by the prime minister - I am confident anyone who wants this issue addressed once and for all will know that the only way to achieve that is to vote Conservative.”
Sir John predicted the eventual referendum would result in a “big majority for staying in” – arguing that quitting the EU would be "folly beyond belief".
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