The EU referendum could be staged just a month after the Scottish Parliament elections in May – despite Nicola Sturgeon voicing concerns over such a move in Scotland.
David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, has said it would be “perfectly possible” to have the EU ballot weeks after the Holyrood election, because voters only focus on the issues in the final weeks before the poll.
The Tory MP said he is likely to back remaining in the EU if David Cameron can secure a new deal on the UK membership, including a crackdown on in-work benefits for EU migrants in Britain.
Ms Sturgeon has said a “longer period” would be needed for a campaign for continued UK membership, while Alex Salmond has said it would be “disrespectful” to Scots voters to hold two ballots so close together.
Mr Mundell said he believes the Prime Minister is likely to achieve a “successful” re-negotiation of the UK’s terms of EU membership.
“On that basis I will be happy to argue that the UK should remain part of the EU,” he said yesterday.
“The issue with the EU referendum is that there are a number of people who have very fixed positions. In that way it’s similar to the referendum in Scotland. Some people are in whatever, some people are out whatever.
“Most people engaged in the referendum really in those final four or six weeks of it, when it was imminent. So it isn’t an argument against having a referendum in June. I think there is a strong argument for having it then, subject to the necessary agreements, so we can get on have a debate and get the referendum out of the way.”
Scots go to the polls at the Holyrood elections on 5 May. Ms Sturgeon has warned that a June vote on leaving the EU could leave voters north of the Border at a disadvantage because they will be swept up in Holyrood campaign issues. A June vote would also come shortly before the Scottish school holidays while the Uefa Euro 2016 football tournament kicks off that month.
But Mr Mundell said: “I don’t accept that. We’ve had elections to the European Parliament in June after elections previously in May.
“I think the evidence from the Scottish referendum is that people really focus on an issue with the imminency of the poll.
“Provided that there is a reasonable gap, I think that is perfectly possible to take place. I think we will end up in this referendum as we were in the Scottish referendum, as we were in the general election not with people complaining that there was not enough information, but that there is too much information.”
The Scottish Government’s Europe minister Humza Yousaf said last night that both the Scottish Parliament elections and the EU referendum are “vitally important events” for Scotland.
“Neither campaign should be drowned out by the other,” he added.
“Perhaps David Mundell hopes a referendum in June will provide cover for a poor Tory result in May.”
He added: “As the First Minister made clear last week a June referendum restricts the opportunity to make the case for remaining in the EU and shows disrespect to the elections taking place in Scotland, Wales and London in May.”
The Prime Minister admitted yesterday that he was “very suspicious of Brussels” and indicated he was ready to introduce new measures to assert the power of Westminster over European Union legislation.
Mr Cameron, who faces a crunch meeting with EU leaders in February over his demands for a new deal for the UK and said he wanted a settlement that represented the “best of both worlds” – giving Britain the benefits of the single market without the euro or ever-closer ties with Brussels.
He said he was prepared to take action if necessary to make it “even clearer to people that our parliament is sovereign”.
“I think there is a good case for it so we will look very carefully at that,” he said.