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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Business Hokey Cokey

The PM was delighted to receive the backing for his Europe speech from 56 'industry and City leaders' in The Times this morning (£).

Speaking in Davos, he said: "If you look what the 55 very major business leaders who’ve written to the Times this morning say, they say this is a sensible approach".

But did the Times letter signatories - among them the bosses of Rolls Royce, Standard Chartered and the London Stock Exchange - actually back an in-out referendum? Well, not exactly.

The actual wording of the letter includes this phrase:

"We need a new relationship with the EU, backed by democratic mandate".

That could easily mean a general election, not a referendum. Sources in Davos claim that when the letter was circulated among businesses, the original version did indeed include the phrase:

"We need a new relationship with the EU, backed by an In-Out referendum."

Yet when some of those business leaders said that they couldn't sign up to such strong meat, the letter was amended, the claim goes. Instead the R-word was replaced with the M-word (mandate).

The Times rightly splashed with the headline "Business backs PM's call for mandate on Europe". Mandate, yes, referendum, nope. Yet the R-word appears in its second para:

"A letter to the Times signed by 56 industry and City leaders has endorsed Mr Cameron's promise of a negotiation followed by an 'in-out' referendum within five years..."

Many of the signatories to the letter are Tory donors and supporters, so one can imagine they had no problem with the R-word. It's a shot in the dark but I'd guess those were worried about the R-word were the non-Tory signatories, possibly worried about the implications for their business of rowing in right behind the HokeyCokey referendum.

Shadow Minister without Portfolio, Lord Wood, today Tweeted: "Why was there no reference to the EU referendum in the Times business chiefs letter today backing Cameron? We should know if they support it."  Maybe the subtle word change is his answer.

The Open Europe think tank helped with the letter. When I rang Open Europe's director Mats Persson today to check the allegation, he told me he knew who had been involved with the letter, but they were unlikely to comment. "It's a large group, I'm sure there are different views about the referendum."

Mats also suggests that the wording isn't really important: "I think 'democratic mandate' is pretty strong."

Storm in a euro teacup or something more significant? I'll leave that to you dear reader...

 

UPDATE: A Tory source says Open Europe knew about and helped with letter but were not responsible for its drafting. They deny the wording was changed and say there's no ambiguity about the word 'mandate' in the context of the PM's speech.

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