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David Cameron berates EU policy

Speaking a few hours before a key vote in the Commons on Europe, and shortly after Clegg came under fire from Tory MPs at prime minister's questions, Cameron said that other parties had to explain why they wanted to deny voters a choice. The prime minister said it was right to reform the EU, and to ask the British people to give their consent in a referendum, because the EU was evolving at a rapid rate. Cameron said in New York: "There are various responses you can make. You can make the response of sticking your head in the sand, pretending nothing has changed and just carrying on and accepting everything that comes out of Brussels. This is not a sensible approach although it does seem to be the approach that some in British politics seem to take." The prime minister's remarks indicate that Clegg's change of tack over a referendum in the Commons appeared not to have gone far enough for No 10.

The deputy prime minister said that a referendum was inevitable because the coalition government had passed a law guaranteeing a vote if further sovereignty were passed from Britain to the EU.

Downing Street is mildly suspicious of Clegg's remarks because the prime minister's renegotiation would probably not trigger a referendum under the terms of the current legislation. This is because the prime minister is aiming to transfer sovereignty in the opposite direction, from Brussels to the UK.

The prime minister said his three-prong approach – reform, renegotiation, then a referendum by the end of 2017 – was the right approach for Britain. He contrasted this with the stance of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

"You have a very clear policy from the Conservatives. The focus should be on the other parties. Well what is your position? Are you going to trust the British people and allow them to have a say?

"We have a very, very clear popular right position that is in the national interest, and the other parties have now got to make their minds up."

Cameron said he could not understand why people were suggesting he would be facing a Commons rebellion when Tory backbenchers table an amendment lamenting the absence of an EU referendum bill from the Queen's speech.

"We have said very clearly, ministers should abstain. It is a free vote for other Conservative MPs. I keep reading about the number of rebels. I hope you can define for me how you can rebel on a free vote.

"The most important thing is that the Queen's speech is going to get the overwhelming backing of the House of Commons and the programme in it will be continued with."

The prime minister said it was right to renegotiate the terms of Britain's EU membership because of the rapid changes brought about by the crisis in the eurozone.

He said: "Europe is changing, Britain needs to be a part of forging that change and just as the eurozone countries come together and do more things together so those countries outside the eurozone need to work out how they are going to make their relationship work with Europe.

"That is what my reform and renegotiation process is about. And then it makes sense at the end of that to give the British people the proper choice – which is not just do you back this new treaty, but actually, do you back Britain being in this reformed organisation or coming out of it?"

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