Cameron moves to quell party revolt over EU membership

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - British Prime Minister David Cameron moved to end a revolt over European Union membership in his ruling Conservative party on Monday, saying all his ministers backed his strategy on the issue despite two expressing more sceptical views than his own.

Mr Cameron, who heads a two-party coalition, has promised to try to renegotiate Britain's membership of the EU if he wins an election in 2015 and then call a referendum to decide whether his country remains a member of the bloc.

He cannot act now because his junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, oppose such a move.

Two of his ministers suggested on Sunday that they would vote to leave the EU if a vote were held today, while Mr Cameron has always said he wants Britain to stay in a reformed EU.

A powerful wing of his own party, worried about losing votes to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), an anti-EU party, is pushing him to enshrine his promise of a vote in law now.

In comments he hopes will hold his party together on an issue that helped bring down previous Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and dogged the premiership of her successor John Major, Mr Cameron said his policy enjoyed the full backing of all his ministers.

"What matters is making sure that we do everything we can to reform the EU ... so that when we have the referendum before the end of 2017 we give the British public a real choice," Mr Cameron told reporters as he flew to the United States to support the case for a US-EU trade deal.

"Every Conservative cabinet minister is confident that we'll be able to deliver those changes. We're all confident of the success."

To compound Mr Cameron's discomfort, up to 100 eurosceptic Conservative members of parliament are expected to back an amendment later this week criticising legislative plans unveiled by the government because they did not include a bill paving the way for a referendum on Britain's EU membership.

The British leader played down the prospect of such a vote on Monday.

"Coalition does throw up different circumstances," he said, adding that newspaper headlines about the vote were "over-excited", a reference to some front-page stories claiming his party was embroiled in a civil war.

The mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, a member of Mr Cameron's Conservatives and a potential leadership rival, said he supported the vote.

"I personally back legislation now to make sure that referendum goes ahead," he said, writing in the right-of-centre Daily Telegraph newspaper.

"It will be a good thing for everyone, because we will all have to focus not on the feud ... but on what is actually right for the country."

Several high-profile internal critics have said Mr Cameron has no chance of renegotiating Britain's EU membership.

But he strongly rejected that charge on Monday.

"You shouldn't give up before a negotiation has started," he said. "It seems to me to be an extraordinary way to go about things. The idea of throwing in the towel before the negotiations have started is a very, very strange opinion."

Mr Cameron set out his Europe strategy in a speech in January. At the time, some business figures criticised him for creating uncertainty around such an important issue.

Officials in several European countries warned him he could not have an "a la carte Europe", choosing the bits he liked while discarding other parts he didn't.

But Mr Cameron said on Monday that he had been encouraged by reaction to the speech. "(It) had a reasonable reception in Europe with a number of key European players recognising this was a legitimate agenda," he said. "It's a good start."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.