British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Tuesday that government ministers will be allowed to campaign both for and against staying in the EU during the forthcoming referendum campaign.
That sets the scene for a hardcore of Eurosceptic Cabinet ministers arguing for a ‘Brexit’, whilst Cameron and other senior ministers are likely to campaign to remain, if the ongoing negotiations are successful.
But it does spare Cameron the embarrassment of sacking ministers who disagree with him, under Britain’s traditional convention of cabinet collective responsibility for government policy.
It also follows the 1975 example of then prime minister Harold Wilson, who allowed ministers to campaign for either side during the UK’s previous, and only, referendum on the issue.
“There will be a clear government position but it will be open to individual ministers to take a different personal position while remaining part of the government,” Cameron told the House of Commons.
Cameron hopes to achieve a breakthrough on his renegotiation demands at February’s European Council summit, followed by a rapid referendum in either the spring or autumn – although technically he has only promised a referendum by the end of 2017.
The prime minister, who travels to Germany and Hungary on Wednesday for further talks, says he will campaign to stay in the EU if he can secure reforms.
The carte blanche to campaign for either side only begins when the referendum campaign begins, however – although Cameron had already faced eursceptic voices in cabinet from colleagues such as Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith, Home Secretary Theresa Smith and Justice Miniser Michael Gove.
The sight of such senior ministers arguing against the likely position of the prime minister futher complicates an already delicate and finely-balanced debate in Britain, where opinion polls have been broadly evenly-divided between ‘stay’ and ‘leave’ – with a significant proportion of ‘don’t know’s.
Nigel Farage, leader of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), said Cameron had done “the right thing”. “He may be surprised now just how many ministers come out in support of leaving,” he added on Sky News.
But Ken Clarke, a Conservative former minister and senior pro-European, warned Cameron risked “splitting the party.”
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign which wants Britain to quit the EU, also welcomed the move.
“We’ve had lots of useful meetings with government ministers and look forward to working with them much more closely now,” he said.
But Will Straw, executive of Britain Stronger in Europe, which wants Britain to remain in the EU, believed the “majority” of Conservative ministers would campaign for EU membership.
The prime minister hinted last month in Brussels that he would hold the referendum in 2016 after securing a deal on his “Brexit” reform demands.
Cameron said after an EU summit in Brussels that his government aimed to achieve a breakthrough at the next summit in February and then encourage British voters to support continued membership.
“I believe that 2016 will be the year we achieve something really vital, fundamentally changing the UK’s relationship with the EU and finally addressing the concerns of the British people about our membership,” he said.
“Then it will be for the British people to decide whether we will remain or leave.”
Richard Corbett, deputy leader of the Labour MEPs, said the move highlighted Cameron’s weakness amongst his own party.
“With this announcement Cameron has again shown that his top priority is the survival of the Conservative party, not the national interest.
“It’s worth remembering that we’re only in this mess in the first place because of the Tory party’s divisions on Europe before the last election.