By Andrew Osborn
British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected calls on Monday to bring forward an in/out European Union membership referendum after his party was beaten into third place in European elections by the anti-EU UKIP party.
Cameron’s assertion that he will leave his European policy unchanged despite UKIP’s success will be seen as an attempt to avoid a damaging debate on an emotive issue which obsesses his party and helped topple the country’s last two Conservative prime ministers.
Anxious to win a majority in next year’s national election, Conservative strategists want to focus on the fact that they lead a coalition government which has nursed Britain’s economy back to health, a job they say is only half-done.
Cameron has promised to try to reshape Britain’s relationship with the EU if re-elected next year before offering an in/out EU membership referendum by the end of 2017.
Spooked by the rise of UKIP and worried it could split the vote at next year’s national election, some of Cameron’s own Eurosceptic lawmakers have urged him to bring forward the date of that vote to 2016 and to step up his renegotiation drive.
Cameron, speaking after the UK Independence Party, which wants Britain to leave the EU, rode a tide of Euroscepticism and anxiety about immigration to beat the opposition Labour party into second place and his Conservatives into third, said he was sticking to his original plan.
“I don’t think shortening the timeframe for the referendum would be right,” Cameron told BBC radio, saying he was “confident” he could secure a significant renegotiation of Britain’s EU ties if given the chance.
His party has however already promised a tougher immigration policy, seen as one of the key drivers of UKIP’s success.
Almost complete results from the European elections suggest no single party will score a decisive win in a national election next year, making another coalition government likely.
A different, first-past-the-post voting system and higher turnout will work against UKIP whose support is expected to fall. Sunday’s results put Labour and the Conservatives on a similar share of the vote, around 25 percent, suggesting neither will win next year’s national vote emphatically enough.
That means that whoever wins may be forced to govern with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s junior coalition partner. It lost 10 of its 11 seats in the European Parliament leaving the future of Nick Clegg, its leader, in question.
Looking tired and upset, Clegg told TV reporters he was “gutted” by the results, but wasn’t stepping down despite calls from some of his own lawmakers to make way for someone else.
Whoever wins next year could also consider governing with UKIP if it manages to convert its success at these elections in up to 30 national seats it plans to target in 2015.
In a triumphant news conference at a central London hotel flanked by his newly-elected Euro lawmakers, Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, predicted his party was on track to win its first seats in the British parliament.
“If you think that you have seen the high watermark of UKIP, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” said Farage.
Cameron ruled out the possibility of making an electoral pact with UKIP before next year’s vote. But he suggested the European results had strengthened his resolve to try to strike a better deal with the EU for his country.
“People are deeply disillusioned with the EU. They don’t feel the current arrangements are working well enough for Britain and they want change,” he said. “I would say that message is absolutely received and understood.”
Labour, which has regularly led national opinion polls but has seen its lead melt away in the last few weeks, polled strongly in London.
But its overall performance was the worst by an opposition party in such a ballot since direct elections were introduced for the contest and polls show many voters cannot see Ed Miliband, the party’s leader, as a future prime minister.
Miliband and his allies have focused on the damage they say a long economic downturn has done to living standards. But with a recovery well underway, that narrative has lost some of its impact, and Miliband has become a figure of ridicule in much of the country’s media who accuse him of having a “geeky” image.
Miliband conceded on Monday there was “further to go” before his party could win back power but said it was on the right track.
“The task for Labour is to understand the lessons of these elections and how we can answer that desire for change,” he told BBC TV.
“Many people who are voting for UKIP were saying we are really discontented with the way the country works and we are asking whether politics can answer that. I intend to show we can.”