David Cameron should waive collective responsibility in the lead-up to the EU referendum and let members of the cabinet campaign freely on either side of the debate, two senior Conservative former cabinet ministers have said.
Ken Clarke, a veteran pro-European and former chancellor, said he would advise the prime minister to let his cabinet colleagues campaign as they wish “because [work and pensions secretary] Iain Duncan Smith and I are not going to be on the same side”.
“Iain Duncan Smith and I have both actually been committed to party unity overall. We differ on Europe. The referendum is meant to be a way of letting us resolve that in a civilised way,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Politics. “I would let the Eurosceptics have a kind of free exercise in campaigning in the referendum.”
Cameron has still not explicitly said how he will handle his Eurosceptic cabinet members – such as Duncan Smith and the culture secretary, John Whittingdale – if he gets the reforms he wants and leads the campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.
However, John Redwood, a former Welsh secretary and Tory leadership candidate in 1995, said there would be resignations unless cabinet members were allowed to campaign on both sides.
“Of course they should be free to campaign as they see fit and they will be free to campaign as they see fit. The only issue is whether they are asked to leave their government positions before they do it or not,” he told the Murnaghan programme on Sky News.
“This is so fundamental. What is the point of being a minister if you are charged, for example, with getting immigration down but the European Union won’t let you do it? If you are faced with that situation, the only honest thing to do is to campaign for a change in the arrangement, or to campaign for out.”
Redwood said he “could not conceivably campaign to stay in the current EU or anything like it”.
With both sides in the campaign lining up for battle already, there was a report in the Mail on Sunday that media owner Rupert Murdoch had become less Eurosceptic and was planning to direct his Sun and Times titles to back the UK staying in the EU.
“He is no fan of bureaucratic blocs, but if it comes down to a choice between Britain getting out of the EU or staying, he would stay in,” a source told the newspaper. However, Murdoch later tweeted that his position did not represent a U-turn, saying there was a misunderstanding somewhere in the piece.
The issue of the EU has dominated UK politics since Cameron won a majority in the general election, which removed any barriers to holding an EU referendum before the end of 2017. The prime minister has already embarked on a cross-European tour to drum up support for restructuring the EU – including limits on benefits for new migrants and a greater role for national parliaments – which he has promised to deliver before putting Britain’s membership to a vote.
The prime minister received a boost on Friday when the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, sounded positive about the possibility for treaty changes that Britain believes are necessary. Some French politicians, among others, have sounded much less open to this prospect.
“Wherever there is a desire, there is also a way, and this should be our guiding principle here,” Merkel said after talks at the chancellery in Berlin.
On Sunday, José Manuel Barroso, the former European commission president, suggested Cameron’s proposed limits to benefits may be possible, though “very difficult” without reopening EU treaties. “There are some possibilities to make changes in the regime for benefits for people from other parts of the union, but without change in the treaties it is very difficult to make any important change,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
However, Barroso said exempting the UK from the EU’s stated aim of “ever-closer union” would “require changes to the treaty and unanimity … [as it] was ratified by all the countries, including Britain”. Barroso also indicated Cameron could get “a trade-off” because some other countries were in favour of deepening the euro area and the UK could get reforms in return.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, also raised the subject in a Murnaghan interview, saying her party would try to amend the government’s EU referendum legislation to ensure any vote to leave would only be valid if all four nations of the UK were in agreement.
However, this would only succeed if Labour took the unlikely step of cooperating with the party that routed dozens of its Scottish MPs at the election.
Sturgeon said: “It would be wrong for the UK to exit the European Union unless every nation that is part of the United Kingdom had chosen to do so. When the European Referendum bill is put before the House of Commons, SNP MPs will seek to amend it to introduce what’s called, in federal states, a double-majority system, so that the UK can only come out of the EU if England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland each have voted for that.”
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 31st May 2015 15.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010