Ministers would back move to leave the European Union
Britain leaving the EU would be "perfectly tolerable" and bring some benefits, Education Secretary Michael Gove has said, as he confirmed he would vote to quit Brussels if there was an immediate referendum.
But he insisted he firmly backed Prime Minister David Cameron's strategy to seek the return of powers before putting a new relationship to an in/out vote by 2017 and played down a planned rebel Queen's Speech vote as MPs "letting off steam".
He said he intended to abstain if an amendment calling for paving legislation to cement the referendum pledge was put to a vote in the Commons this week - after ministers were told not to back it.
Several had otherwise been tipped to join up to 100 backbenchers who have been given free rein to effectively vote against part of their own Government's Queen's Speech programme.
Asked about reports last year that he told friends he would vote 'no' if there was a referendum now, Mr Gove told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "Yes, I'm not happy with our position with the European Union. But my preference is for a change in Britain's relationship.
"My ideal is exactly what the majority of the British public's ideal is, which is to recognise the current situation is no good, to say that life outside would be perfectly tolerable, we could contemplate it, there would be certain advantages.
"But the best deal for Europe and for Britain would be if Britain were to lead the change that Europe needs."
Mr Gove dismissed Labour claims that allowing Tory MPs to back the motion "regretting" the failure to seek to enshrine the referendum promise in law showed the party was in turmoil and a Prime Minister being "pushed around".
"You can't have a civil war when everyone is on the same side.
"Fundamentally, the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs would like to have a different relationship between Britain and Europe.
"Some of my colleagues are very exuberant and want to let off steam. That is fair enough. My own view is let the Prime Minister lay out our negotiation platform, make sure that he has a majority which I'm convinced he'll secure at the next election, and let's have the referendum then.
"I am going to abstain because while I believe that while we absolutely need to have a referendum at some point in the future, it is not appropriate at this stage and also, in a way, it is an exercise in letting off steam because we can't have a referendum bill because we are in coalition."
He went on: "I think the most important thing to do is to support the Prime Minister in renegotiating our position and then put it to a referendum."
Tory MP John Baron, who organised a letter signed by 100-plus Tory MPs last year calling for legislation and tabled the amendment after Mr Cameron ruled it out, said without it the referendum pledge was "credible...but it is not yet believable".
Passing paving legislation "would be a concrete way of demonstrating serious intent".
But, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he also said he and fellow members would use "every means possible" to bring forward legislation such as private member's bills in the coming weeks.
Downing Street has indicated that David Cameron is "relaxed" about the idea of Tory MPs formally attacking his Government's own Queen's Speech in the Commons division lobbies.
And it says he is prepared to "look at all ways of strengthening his commitment".
The amendment is expected to be selected for debate by Speaker John Bercow in Wednesday's debate on the legislative programme.
Conservative unrest over the European issue has been inflamed by the electoral success of the anti-EU UK Independence Party and Tory grandees such as former chancellor Lord Lawson advocating withdrawal.
Labour leader Ed Miliband yesterday reiterated his opposition to the referendum promise, saying it would damage the UK's national interest and strongly backing British membership of the EU.
"It is wrong now to commit to an in/out referendum and have four years of uncertainty and a 'closed for business' sign above our country," he said, accusing Mr Cameron of "flailing around".
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls, however, insisted the Opposition should not "set our face against" a referendum.
He told Sky News' Murnaghan programme: "I think (a commitment to a referendum) is the wrong thing to do now, but I don't think we should set our face against consulting the British people.
"I don't think we should say anything which gives the impression we don't understand their concerns.
"But I think if we were to answer the question by saying maybe in two years' time, we play the same destabilising political, tactical short-term game... (that) is making David Cameron look like he's not really fit to be Prime Minister at the moment."
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said it would be "bizarre" if ministers defied collective responsibility by voting for the amendment and said he would abstain if it is approved and selected for debate.
"Voting in favour is absolutely out of the question because we have collective responsibility for the Queen's Speech," he told BBC1's Sunday Politics.
"But I would not want to vote against it and allow that to be misinterpreted as in any way questioning our commitment to, our belief in, the idea of a referendum."
He said the significance of the split vote had been "enormously inflated".
"We are all violently agreeing here: we all believe that there needs to be a referendum on Europe; we all believe that the British people need to have a say; and we also all agree that we need to make very clear to the public that commitment to a referendum.
"Now some of our backbench colleagues think that the best way to do that is to bring forward a Bill in this parliament that would be almost certain to be defeated because it won't be supported by the Liberal Democrats and it will be opposed by the Labour Party."
A draft Bill could instead be published before the election to demonstrate what legislation would look lie if the Tories win in 2015, he said.
Mr Hammond said he agreed that the status quo in the relationship with Brussels was unsustainable but said it was set to change, not only because of the renegotiation effort, but because of the "internal logic" of the eurozone.
Home Secretary Theresa May told Sky News' Murnaghan programme she believed there was a need for change in Europe but declined to comment on whether she would vote to leave the union if a referendum was held tomorrow.
She said: "I'm going to be working alongside the Prime Minister and others to make sure when that package is put to the British people that we have a package which is a different deal, that does have a different relationship with the European Union.
"That's what people want and that's what we are going to be working for.
"Michael (Gove) gave his view, I've been clear in my comments I think there is a change that is needed... what I want see is work done to make sure we get a renegotiated deal, a renegotiated settlement, and then have that put to the British people."
Belfast Telegraph Digital