Labour has accused it of being in “disarray” after a series of setbacks, including a backbench rebellion against Sunday trading laws, the resignation of the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and the belated response to the threatened closure of the Port Talbot steelworks.
But the prime minister insisted the government was carrying on as normal, during a tetchy encounter with reporters at the British ambassador to the US’s residence in Washington.
“You have got a government with a packed programme, delivering that programme – but at the same time we’re having a very important debate about Europe,” he said.
Asked if he had neglected the day-to-day running of the government to mastermind the referendum campaign, he replied: “I don’t accept the premise of your question for one moment,” adding: “The world hasn’t stopped turning, the government hasn’t stopped operating.”
He blamed media reporting for exaggerating the divisions in his own party over Britain’s future in Europe, telling journalists: “You spend too much time reading each others’ papers. You all go around setting each others’ hair on fire and getting very excited about this but it’s all a lot of processology. I can’t see what the issue is.”
Despite Cameron’s protestations, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said it was obvious that the government had “taken its eye off the ball and is preoccupied with infighting over Europe”.
“The government is failing in its basic duty, is asleep at the wheel and people are paying the price,” he said.
Julian McCrae, the Institute for Government’s deputy director, also warned last week there was a real danger of ministers becoming distracted because of the fallout from the referendum campaign.
Cameron and George Osborne are devoting a large amount of time to winning the case for Britain to stay in the EU, when voters go to the polls on 23 June. Cameron has already toured the country making the case for remain, and more public appearances are planned.
But restive backbenchers have blamed Downing Street’s focus on averting the risk of Brexit for a series of recent missteps, including the unravelling of last month’s budget.
There has been a series of other clashes among Cameron’s top team in recent weeks as the debate over Britain’s future in Europe has intensified, and some leading leave campaigners believe he has resorted too much to playing up the risks of Brexit, a strategy derided as “project fear”.
However, Cameron robustly defended his handling of the campaign, saying: “I stand by everything I’ve said. I think I’ve put the argument in a very clear, very positive and very straightforward terms.
“But I make absolutely no apology for challenging those who want to leave to set out what the alternative is because it changes all the time. One minute it’s a Canada free-trade deal, then it’s not a Canada free-trade deal, then it’s an easy deal with the European single market, then it’s not an easy deal with the single market. One day it’s Norway, then it’s Iceland, then it’s not Norway, then it’s not Iceland, then it’s not Canada. This is a really important decision for the future of our country, for our children and our grandchildren, and we’ve got to get it right.”
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