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Nick Wood: Cameron secures a powerful ally in the quest for the right approach to Europe

Nick WoodNick Wood is former Head of Communications for the Conservative Party and now runs Media Intelligence Partners.

David Cameron's historic pledge of a referendum on the terms of Britain's membership of the European Union in 2017 has not paid the political dividends he would have hoped.

The viscerally anti-EU UKIP comfortably beat the Tories in the Eastleigh by-election and one of this weekend's polls had it luxuriating on 17 per cent. The county council elections, where UKIP are fielding candidates in most of the wards, are likely to end with another bloody nose for the Prime Minister and the increasingly threadbare defence that mid-term setbacks are inevitable.

The summer of 2014 offers the anti-Europeans an even better opportunity. Most observers now expect Nigel Farage's choleric revolutionaries to either top the poll or come a close second to one of the major parties.

A buoyant UKIP almost certainly means a Tory defeat in the general election of 2015 and, by extension, a Labour or Lab-Lib government. So how does Mr Cameron put Dad's Army back in its box?

The formation of Business for Britain is a potential lifeline for the PM. Backed by 500 company chiefs, it represents a serious attempt to consolidate public opinion firmly behind his vision of a reformed EU in which competitiveness, flexibility, power to individual states, democratic accountability and fairness for countries inside and outside the eurozone are the watchwords.

In part it is a reaction to the long-standing support for a big, bureaucratic EU advocated by the big, bureaucratic firms that dominate the Confederation of British Industry and the campaign group Business for New Europe.

But its true purposes run much deeper. Business for Britain has a three-fold mission. First to persuade the British public that the EU is capable of reform and to draw up a practical agenda for change that the people can understand and support. Second, to foster a climate in which people can see the link between reforming the EU and boosting prosperity and freedom at home. Third to hold Mr Cameron to account when he comes back from Brussels waving his piece of paper.

We have been here before. In 1975, the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson conducted a renegotiation that proved purely cosmetic and then won a referendum in which fear of the unknown – outside the reassuring embrace of Brussels – proved a decisive factor. There can be no repeat of that typically Wilsonian exercise in political chicanery.

But we should be wary of getting too far ahead of the curve. The immediate priority is for the Conservatives to spell out in clear and simple terms what they are trying to achieve with the promised renegotiation and to secure popular support for this change agenda. They also need to show that UKIP's dogmatic refusal to countenance EU membership on any future terms is a counsel of despair and defeat.

The Conservatives also need to campaign on their referendum pledge. So far it has been striking that after the PM's speech in January, senior ministers have had remarkably little to say about their European agenda. This relative silence can be readily interpreted as a lack of resolve, and a signal to the public that their heart is not really in it. Business for Britain can help shift that perception.

Of course, so much is hypothetical. Will Labour eventually match Cameron's referendum promise? Will the PM be persuaded to put Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg on the spot by bringing forward legislation in this Parliament paving the way for a referendum in the next? Would Labour and the Lib Dems actually vote down a referendum Bill even though it has the backing of the majority of the electorate? Will Cameron win the election and therefore put his European plan into practice? Will he keep his word?

Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of Business for Britain, is a confirmed Eurosceptic and a formidable campaigner. At the head of another all-party group, No2AV, he destroyed Mr Clegg's dream of changing the voting system so that his party had an almost permanent role as kingmaker. As the founder of The Taxpayers’ Alliance, he has done much to raise awareness of the perils of high tax, high spend government.

A battle royal over Britain's place in Europe cannot be dodged for ever. Eurosceptics should be encouraged that at long last serious business people are weighing in on the right side.


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