Osborne: PM giving ministers free rein on EU referendum is not a U-turn

PM and Chancellor visit Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire

George Osborne has denied that David Cameron’s decision to allow government ministers to campaign for either side in the EU referendum represents a change of position.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, Osborne denied that the prime minister had changed his mind on the issue.

“I think most people accept that I’m close to David Cameron,” the chancellor said. “We work very well together and we’re good colleagues and I know that for a very considerable period of time that he has thought that it is right that when the moment comes and the question is put to the British public … that individual ministers in the government – just like members of the public – should, in a personal capacity, be able to express their opinion.”

On Tuesday, Cameron announced that ministers would have be allowed to campaign on either side of the in/out referendum after a manoeuvre by hardline Eurosceptic cabinet ministers.

Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers, who are planning to join Iain Duncan Smith in campaigning to leave the EU, told the prime minister on Monday that he should clarify the position that ministers would be able to take during the campaign.

In a meeting in Downing Street, Grayling is understood to have argued that the referendum is of such vital importance that voters should hear both sides of the argument from ministers.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in January last year, the prime minister appeared to rule out following the example of the then Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who suspended collective cabinet responsibility during the 1975 EEC referendum. Asked whether he would allow government ministers a free vote, Cameron said: “No, I have set that out very clearly in the past.”

Quizzed about the comments on Thursday, Osborne said: “He hasn’t changed his mind. If you look at the Andrew Marr interview, what he was talking about and what we continue to say is that there is collective agreement in the government … that we are going to have a referendum … [and] that we should seek a better deal in Europe.”

“It’s long been his view, and it’s the view of the Conservative leadership, that while the government will take a position, and we will make a recommendation to the British people about how we think people should vote in the referendum, individual ministers who have longstanding views on these issues will be able to speak in a personal capacity.

“After all, what’s the alternative? That someone you know – because of what they’ve said in the past, has long-held views – comes on this programme and obfuscates and doesn’t give you a clear answer and everybody knows that’s not their real view,” he said. “I think it’s much better to have this approach.”

Osborne made the comments before a speech in Cardiff in which he will warn of the risks to the UK from the shaky global economy which contains a “dangerous cocktail of new threats”.

The former chancellor Kenneth Clarke has criticised Cameron for his decision to suspend collective cabinet responsibility, saying he was repeating the mistake of appeasing opponents.

Clarke told the World at One on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday: “It is just like John Major, who tried to put people in the cabinet to get them to be more loyal [and] found that it didn’t work – they all briefed against him and were openly disloyal. David has had to come to this position and it is up to the Eurosceptics now to demonstrate they are going to behave in a respectable and sensible way. There is such a thing as the national interest.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th January 2016 10.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010