Referendum moves won’t make Ukip go away, Europe minister says

Europe minister David Lidington has hit out against Conservative eurosceptics ahead of Wednesday's likely vote by telling them to focus on issues other than the in/out referendum tearing his party apart.

In an interview with Lidington urged his fellow Tory MPs to respond to Ukip's surging popularity by recognising that Conservatives will only win back support if they focus on issues voters care about, rather than dividing the party over Europe.

His comments came as days of growing tension between backbenchers and the government come to a head in tonight's likely division on the rebels' Queen's Speech debate amendment.

"My message to Conservative backbenchers is the Conservative party will win back votes by showing that it's delivering to the British people on the issues that matter most to voters and their families," he said.

"Those are economic stability and growth and job creation; they are effective reform of the welfare system and public services to focus services efficiently on people that really need them. It's about managing and controlling immigration so that we continue to attract the brightest and best to skill our economy, but you control and reduce the overall numbers which we are doing significantly."

Lidington's own Aylesbury seat could be at risk from Ukip, according to recent polling by Survation. But he insisted Nigel Farage's party were a protest vote which did not require an over-reaction.

"The one thing I know is if you look at the polling research it shows people who have been voting for Ukip are not doing so primarily because of Europe," he added.

"They're doing so because of a frustration with all the main political parties and also because of concerns about the economy."

Lidington continued the spat over whether a private member's bill will be sufficient to placate voters by arguing the coalition government has no other option, because an EU referendum is not supported by the Liberal Democrats.

"The prime minster as party leader is saying this move would have his support," Lidington said.

"It is difficult for private members' bills to reach the statute book but it's for other political parties in parliament to say what they're going to do about this and see how their MPs will vote when the question is put to them.

"The principle that there should be a decisive referendum about our future in Europe halfway through the next parliament is something that is firm Conservative policy."

As Europe minister Lidington has spent the last four months travelling across Europe attempting to convince European leaders of the merits of Cameron's reform drive.

He said he was detecting "interest" in the proposals but issued a clear warning that most European governments are not realising the growing urgency of fundamental change.

"I think the challenge that I've become more and more aware of is that the European institutions haven't woken up fully to the urgency of the need for change," he explained.

Both economic and political problems need to be addressed to satisfy the Conservative party's concerns, Lidington said.

If the Conservatives are elected at the next general election the party will offer voters an in-out referendum based on a renegotiation with Brussels. The viability of this approach has been called into question by senior Tories in recent days, however, amid concerns no meaningful concessions would be agreed by European leaders.

Lidington said he was "confident" the prime minister could achieve the reforms required by British voters. "David Cameron has got a constructive response from his colleagues across Europe and stimulated debate," he said. "Now we need to drive that agenda further forward."