David Cameron has been put under further pressure to allow cabinet ministers to campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, as Liam Fox became the first senior Conservative to confirm he will definitely push for a British exit.
Fox, a longtime Eurosceptic and former defence secretary, said it was clear that the prime minister would not be able to negotiate enough fundamental reforms to the UK’s relationship with the EU to satisfy him.
Downing Street has been hoping Cameron’s discussions – due to be completed in February – will have a sufficiently positive outcome to convince Conservative MPs to campaign to stay in the EU.
But Fox’s decision to confirm he will push to leave the EU, coming before Cameron has finished his renegotiations in Brussels, could encourage more senior Eurosceptics to break cover.
Writing in the Sunday Times (£), he said Cameron was going around Europe with a “political begging bowl”. The MP said Cameron should end his “pretence” of renegotiation and Britain should no longer be “tied to an economically failing, socially tense and politically unstable project”.
On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Fox called on the prime minister to let ministers campaign on both sides of the debate by suspending cabinet collective responsibility.
Graham Brady, the head of the Tories’ 1922 committee of backbenchers, added to the pressure on Cameron by confirming he would back such a move.
“There are deeply held views – on both sides – which cannot be reconciled. To try and force members of the cabinet to ignore their convictions would be a catastrophic mistake,” he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
However, Sir John Major, who is still close to No 10, said people deserved to hear a clear cut argument from Cameron and his cabinet. The former prime minister said it would be “extraordinary” if any cabinet minister said they would campaign for the UK to leave the EU before discussions are over.
Major said he “would very much hope they would not wish” to vote to leave. “The unity of the argument, the argument for the sake of the country is very important,” he said.
Major added that he believed the EU would ultimately compromise on a deal because it needs the fastest-growing economy in the bloc to stay.
Cameron has argued he made progress with European leaders at a discussion about his renegotiation demands at a Brussels summit last week.
He wants concessions on his demands for greater veto powers for national parliaments, protections for non-eurozone countries, an end to “ever closer union” and curbs for migrant benefits – but the last of these has met with significant opposition from other EU leaders.
The polls suggest the vote could be close, with public opinion showing as increasingly Eurosceptic.
An ICM poll for the Vote Leave campaign found 50% of voters were in favour of leaving, if those who said they were undecided were excluded. Overall, 41% wanted to leave while 42% wanted to stay, and the rest did not know.
The poll, published in the Daily Telegraph, found the numbers were different if Cameron won no concessions on freedom of movement and curbing migration. In that case, 45% would vote for a Brexit and 40% would back staying in the EU – or 53% to leave and 47% to remain excluding undecideds.
A separate poll by Survation in the Express found 42% would vote to leave compared with 40% who would vote to stay.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th December 2015 11.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010