David Cameron warned he could lose ministers over EU referendum campaign

PM with media

David Cameron is being warned that a number of ministers will resign unless he allows cabinet members to follow their conscience and campaign for a no vote in the EU referendum.

As the prime minister prepares to brief fellow EU leaders on his renegotiation plans on the margins of a summit in Riga on Friday, government sources said Cameron would need to devise a mechanism to deal with highly Eurosceptic ministers if he wants to avoid a damaging split.

There are increasing suspicions among Eurosceptics that the prime minister is determined to keep Britain in the EU – and some cabinet figures are suggesting that he could allow ministers to resign from the government for the duration of the referendum.

This would give ministers the chance to campaign for a no vote but would allow the prime minister to say he was acting differently to Harold Wilson, who avoided a split in the Labour party by allowing ministers to campaign on either side in the 1975 EEC referendum.

One cabinet source said: “The party will obviously be split. Some will try and influence the negotiations; others will just wait for the referendum and be ready for the no campaign.”

The prime minister will informally brief EU leaders at the Eastern Partnership summit as the German government issued mixed signals over the prime minister’s plans to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, announced that he had invited his counterpart George Osborne to Berlin to discuss how British and German demands for a rewriting of the EU’s rules could be combined.

Berlin would like to revise the Lisbon treaty to underpin new governance arrangements for the eurozone. Britain wants to change the treaty to allow for new rules to limit benefits claimed by EU migrants and to exempt the UK from the EU’s historic commitment to create an “ever closer union” of the peoples of Europe.

Schäuble suggested in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the EU would be unlikely to agree to treaty change by 2017 – the prime minister’s deadline for his referendum.

But in a sign that Berlin has already been briefed in some detail by Downing Street and the Treasury, Schäuble added: “We will try to move in this direction, possibly through agreements that would later be incorporated into treaty changes. There is a big margin of manoeuvre.”

British government sources say they are hoping to agree a legally binding protocol before the referendum, which will have to be held by the end of 2017, according to the parliamentary bill to be published next week. The protocol would then either be written into, or attached to, the Lisbon treaty if Britain votes to stay in the EU.

The prime minister is expected to formally set out his renegotiation plans at the next EU summit in Brussels next month.

The Riga summit, where he will outline his thinking to his counterparts, will be attended by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the French president, François Hollande, and the European council president, Donald Tusk, who will chair the renegotiations.

The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “It [the Riga summit] is the first overseas visit for the prime minister since the election, it is his first opportunity to have some discussions with partners about the way he wants to reform the EU, renegotiate the UK’s relationship with it and the referendum. It is an opportunity to have some discussions with people while he is there. Following the calls he had with European leaders immediately after winning the election, I expect he will have further talks with them in the weeks ahead. This is a negotiation now and this is a start. But there will be many more discussions to come.”

Senior Tory Eurosceptics are alarmed by the language from Downing Street in recent days which suggests, in their view, that the prime minister is planning to table unambitious demands to allow him to claim victory in the negotiations and then campaign for a yes vote.

Ministerial sources suggest that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, would resign from the cabinet unless he was given free rein to campaign for a no vote. Other ministers, such as the new justice minister, Dominic Raab, the leader of the Commons, Chris Grayling, and the employment minister, Priti Patel, will wrestle with their consciences if the negotiations are modest.

The prime minister is planning to demand change in four broad areas. He wants to:

  • Make it all but impossible for unemployed EU migrants to claim benefits and force EU migrants in employment to wait four years before claiming in-work benefits.
  • Give Britain an opt-out from the “ever closer union” declaration.
  • Guarantee that non-eurozone members, such as the UK, could not have changes to the rules of the single market imposed on them by eurozone countries.
  • Allow national parliaments to club together to block new legislative proposals.

Cameron has made clear that all ministers will have to sign up to his negotiation plan under the principle of collective responsibility, which declares that ministers are bound by every government decision. But there are active discussions about what will happen when the referendum is under way.

One proposal is to follow the example of Duncan Smith, who imposed a three-line whip on Tory MPs to vote in favour of the Iraq war in 2003. A series of shadow ministers resigned to vote against the war. All but one – John Baron – were reappointed to the frontbench shortly afterwards.

One government source said: “The PM is clear that you have to support negotiations to be part of government. Once the referendum is under way, one idea expressed is that you would resign for the campaign. If the PM likes you, you can come back. If not, you can’t. He will lose some ministers over this.”

A spokesman for Cameron said: “The prime minister is very confident he will get the changes we need and he can go forward and put the case for staying in a reformed EU.”

On the issue of collective responsibility: “The prime minister has spoken about this before and the position has not changed. There is nothing to indicate it will change.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for The Guardian on Wednesday 20th May 2015 20.00 Europe/London

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