A referendum on EU membership would lead to chaos and uncertainty, former Prime Minister Tony Blair said today, accusing David Cameron of trading the UK’s national interest for political advantage.
Speaking in his former constituency of Sedgefield, Blair said British business would face the most intense period of uncertainty since the Second World War, should the Conservatives win on 7 May.
“Think of the chaos produced by the possibility never mind the reality of Britain quitting Europe,” said Blair. “There would be significant business uncertainty in the run-up to a vote. But should the vote go the way of exit, then there would be the most intense period of business anxiety, reconsideration of options and instability since the war.”
This will be a contentious intervention by Blair. Despite winning three elections, the former prime minister is unpopular with large segments of the UK public largely because of his actions in Iraq.
Current Labour leader Ed Miliband won the leadership of the party on a pledge to move away from Blair’s New Labour project.
Blair said Miliband showed “real leadership” in not bowing to pressure to agree to hold a referendum adding he backs the current Labour leader “100%”.
David Cameron’s pledge to hold an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 was made in an attempt to lure back voters being lost to the UK Independence Party.
Blair attacked the tactic, and said, “This issue, touching as it does the country’s future, is too important to be traded like this.”
“The Prime Minister doesn’t really believe we should leave Europe; not even the Europe as it is today. This was a concession to party, a manoeuvre to access some of the UKIP vote, a sop to the rampant anti-Europe feeling of parts of the media,” he said.
“We should have a referendum if we seriously believe that getting out of Europe is a national priority if our terms aren’t met. If we don’t, then it is a completely unacceptable gamble with our future,” said Blair.
The renewed focus on the EU in the campaign comes as the Centre for European Reform published a report saying a UK exit from the EU would disproportionately affect disadvantaged areas.
The report suggests the less affluent areas of the UK are also those that rely most on exports to the EU.
In the northeast of England, one of the poorest regions in the country, exports to the EU account for 15% of private sector output. This compares to 9% for the more affluent southeast.
Should the UK leave the EU it would seek to negotiate a trade deal to gain access to the single market. The report suggests such a deal might not be automatic.
“There are good reasons to think that a post-Brexit free trade agreement might not be achieved,” say the reports. “The remaining EU countries might seek to punish Britain, to deter others from perusing the same strategy…it is easy to overstate the importance of the UK market to the other member states.”
The report also highlights the likelihood of post Brexit access to the single market being conditional on accepting many of the rules that govern it, including the free movement of people which would prove extremely contentious.
“This evidence should prompt them, particularly in the UK’s poorer regions, to reconsider the risks [of Brexit],” concludes the report.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph this weekend, David Cameron encouraged voters on the right of British politics to “come back home” and vote Tory in May.
Cameron said he understood the frustration that voters felt about the two issues which UKIP campaigns on – immigration and Europe – but urged them to weigh their voting choice carefully.
“This election is not a time to send a message or make a protest,” he said. “This election is about choosing the government of this country for the next five years.”
UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn said Cameron’s comments showed “arrogance”.
“UKIP voters hail from many different political backgrounds and also include lots of people who have not voted at all for 20 years or more,” said Flynn. “They do not view any of the establishment political parties as their “home” and it is typical arrogance from Cameron to claim that they do.”