Former Yeovil MP Lord Paddy Ashdown has labelled the Conservatives a “party of little Englanders” that has set Britain on course to leave the EU.
The former Liberal Democrat leader attacked David Cameron in a House of Lords debate and his plan for an in-or-out referendum on EU membership in 2018.
He said there was now a “virulent little Englander” movement running through the Conservative Party, adding: “They don’t want to re-negotiate Europe, they want out altogether.”
Lord Ashdown said it did not matter what Mr Cameron brought back from his attempts to renegotiate Britain’s role in Europe. “They will reject it,” he said.
He told peers: “The difference between Britain and the rest is that we are negotiating wanting to get out, while the rest of them are negotiating wanting to get further in.”
Accusing the Prime Minister of damaging investment and giving “huge stimulus” to Scottish independence, Lord Ashdown said: “He will have set Britain on a path, intentionally or not, when he returns with too little and has to recommend no in a referendum, that takes this country out of Europe.
“That would be devastatingly damaging. This country’s interests have never lain outside Europe. But the Conservative party now, a party of little Englanders, has taken us away from that. This is folly.”
Lord Ashdown said the Prime Minister’s speech was about “politics and nothing else”.
It was directed only to the Conservative party in a bid to put a “sticking plaster over the gaping and bloody wound” that ran deep over Europe.
Lord Ashdown’s remarks were dismissed by Downing Street officials but campaigners for a British exit were hoping that his prediction comes true.
Tim Aker, of the Get Britain Out campaign, said: “Paddy Ashdown has said what we’ve known all along. It will be impossible for Cameron to negotiate looser ties.
“To get his flexible arrangement, the UK will have to leave political union and negotiate a simple free-trade agreement. Renegotiation in the EU is a waste of time, especially when EU leaders refuse to budge on their plans for ever closer union.
“The Prime Minister should listen to the majority of the British public, who want the in-or-out vote to take place during this parliament.”
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister set out his views to the public a few days ago.”