Lawson intervention threatens to blow Tories apart on Europe

Former chancellor Nigel Lawson has issued a challenge to the authority of David Cameron by insisting he will vote against membership of the EU whatever deal the prime minister might be able to secure.

The intervention marks a significant new stage in the debate on Europe in the Tory party and brings back the prospect of the party tearing itself apart over the issue.

"The case for exit is clear," he wrote in an article for the Times newspaper.

The former chancellor said the creation of the eurozone had "fundamentally changed" the situation to Britain's detriment.

"‘That is why, while I voted 'in' in 1975, I shall be voting 'out' in 2017," he wrote.

Lawson's intervention is fascinating because he leapfrogs the current debate on legislation for the referendum and even the negotiations for a new membership deal for Britain, which Cameron has committed to securing before the country goes to the polls.

Instead, the former chancellor says he will vote to leave regardless of the deal Cameron gets in Europe, insisting anything he could negotiate in Europe would be "inconsequential".

The comment is a significant challenge to Cameron's authority. With a widely-respected former chancellor and supporter of the EU publicly saying he would vote to leave no matter what, Tory backbenchers will feel they have sufficient covering fire to openly make the same case.

Lawson, 81, said the EU had become a "bureaucratic monstrosity" and that leaving would provide rewards which "substantially outweigh the costs".

The EU is "an institution that has achieved its historic purpose and is now past its sell-by date", he added.

Nigel Farage said: "Lord Lawson's article in The Times today legitimises the Ukip position and exposes serious divisions in the Tory party."

Nick Clegg said the intervention was a result of Ukip's impressive results in last week's local elections.

"The Conservatives are struggling to work out how to deal with Ukip," he told ITV's Daybreak.

"We need to reform the European Union but not turn our backs on it because to do so would make us less safe and less prosperous."

The deputy prime minister said Britain stood to lose three million jobs if it left the EU – a claim Lawson dismissed as "poppycock".

Speaking on the World at One, he said: "Of course that’s poppycock, but I don't think Nick Clegg, who's a charming young man, has ever purported to know anything at all about economics."

In a series of media appearances, he told the BBC the Lawson comment was "part of an anguished debate within the Tory party – they've had it before, they'll have it again".

Labour shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds will give a speech in Vienna today which is expected to offer further details of the party's European policy.