Britain will vote on its membership of the European Union on June 23, Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday as he began the daunting challenge of persuading the country to stay in the bloc.
He announced the date for the referendum after a two-hour cabinet meeting where he briefed ministers on the deal he struck in Brussels on Friday, which he said will give Britain “special status” in the EU.
“We are approaching one of the biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes,” Cameron said, addressing the nation outside his 10 Downing Street residence.
“The choice goes to the kind of country we want to be,” he said, warning that proponents of leaving were offering “a risk at a time of uncertainty, a leap in the dark”.
Britain would be “safer, stronger and better off” in the 28-member bloc, he said, calling the concessions negotiated with other EU leaders “the best of both worlds”.
The referendum campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with most opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
“The 23rd is our golden opportunity, let battle be joined,” said the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) party, Nigel Farage, branding the deal “pathetic”.
Cameron’s Conservative Party is particularly split, and no sooner had Saturday’s cabinet meeting ended than five of its 22 ministers announced they would be campaigning to leave.
Among them are justice minister Michael Gove, who said “this chance may never come again in our lifetimes”.
Around 50 Conservative MPs had by Saturday come out in favour of leaving, while Pro-EU MP Nick Herbert tweeted 100 Tory MPs would back Britain staying in — accounting for almost half of the 330 lawmakers the party has in parliament.
A bigger blow for Cameron would be the loss of popular London mayor Boris Johnson to the eurosceptic camp, which has so far been plagued by in-fighting and has no clear leader.
According to reports, Johnson will reveal his decision in a newspaper column on Monday.
The Mail on Sunday carried good news for Cameron with a Survation telephone poll showing the “in” campaign with a 15 percent lead, a huge swing from level previous surveys.
Cameron announced his intention to hold a referendum three years ago, under pressure from Conservative eurosceptics and the rise of UKIP.
He said he would only campaign to stay in if he could secure reforms to address key concerns about EU migration, loss of sovereignty, economic competitiveness and the protection of non-eurozone Britain’s financial sector.
Declaring success in his negotiations on Friday, Cameron said he would campaign “with all my heart and soul” to stay.