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DAVID CAMERON has "shifted ground" on Europe and says he is now prepared to introduce "legal safeguards" that will guarantee a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU takes place after the 2015 general election.
The Prime Minister's willingness to give MPs a vote on an in-out referendum that would enshrine the process in law is seen as a response to the growing electoral threat posed by UKIP. Nigel Farage's anti-EU party, which has described Cameron's promise of a referendum by 2018 as "meaningless", is expected to enjoy another surge in support today in local government elections taking place in many English shires.
The Daily Telegraph says UKIP has "campaigned successfully" on the claim that Cameron's promise of a referendum is "jam tomorrow". Polls suggest UKIP will win more than 20 per cent of the vote at today's elections and Conservative strategists believe the Tory party will lose as many as 500 council seats.
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The PM has "always held back" from giving MPs a pre-election vote on a referendum because he knows it will "split the coalition and enrage pro-European Tories", says The Times. He has changed his mind partly because of UKIP's surging fortunes and partly due to pressure from within his own party. More than 100 Tory MPs have urged him to make such a move "as a way of overcoming scepticism of promised referendums, while undercutting UKIP's appeal".
The idea of "legislating" the referendum promise will be explored by No. 10's newest recruit, Jo Johnson, brother of London mayor Boris Johnson.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said today that the Tories' frantic "struggle" to deal with UKIP's rising influence was pulling Cameron away from the "centre ground" and making "day-to-day progress in the coalition" more difficult, The Guardian reports. Clegg, whose own party faces the prospect of coming fourth behind UKIP in today's poll, said he would "dig in my heels and make sure the centre of gravity of the government as a whole does not get pulled rightwards due to the internal dynamics of the Conservative party".
The deputy PM said Conservative policies on welfare, Europe and climate change were three "pre-eminent examples" of Cameron being pulled right. He also conceded that his coalition partner was "no longer the same political animal as presented before the 2010 general election".