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Tories' euro rebellion grows

By Andy McSmith

Two Tory ministers edged the Conservative Party closer to calling for an end to Britain's membership of the EU – saying that if relations did not change, they would vote for an immediate exit.

First to break cover was Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, whose position was markedly different from that of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, whose aim is to bring about sufficient change in the EU to persuade the public to vote in a referendum to stay in.

Asked by the BBC yesterday whether he would vote to leave the EU if a referendum were held now, Mr Gove replied: "Yes, I'm not happy with our position in the European Union."

But after serving that morsel of raw meat to the Tory right wing, Mr Gove immediately stepped back into line behind the Prime Minister's strategy. He told the broadcaster's deputy political editor, James Landale: "My preference is for a change in Britain's relationship with the European Union. 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 life outside would be perfectly tolerable, we could contemplate it, there would be advantages."

Later, the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, echoed his words, telling the BBC's John Pienaar that he too would vote to leave the EU under current circumstances – although he predicted that Mr Cameron would be able to secure more acceptable conditions for Britain.

Mr Gove also dismissed suggestions that the Conservatives were "at war" because large numbers of backbench MPs intended to back the rebel amendment.

"You can't have a civil war when everyone's on the same side," he said. "The overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs would like to have a different relationship between Britain and Europe – I emphatically want a different relationship."

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.

Some Labour politicians agree that the public should have a vote on whether to stay in the EU, although unlike the Tory right, they hope it will settle the issue in favour of continued membership.

A new group, Labour for a Referendum, is to be launched next month, with the backing of the former Europe minister, Keith Vaz, the comic actor Richard Wilson and The Independent columnist Owen Jones. Mr Wilson said: "As a pro-European I want to put the issue to bed once and for all."

But the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, told Sky's Murnaghan programme there were more urgent priorities.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage, whose anti-EU party translated record opinion poll scores into a stunning surge in this month's local elections, said: "It is quite transparent that, like Banquo's ghost, Ukip, and its forthright position on our membership of Europe and the need for a rapid referendum, is driving forward the ideas within the Conservative Party. As for Labour, Mr Miliband is transfixed in the headlights of public concern, leaving him with little more than to bleat soundbites."

What now?

The Speaker, John Bercow, has yet to rule on whether the Commons will vote on a motion put forward by backbench MPs expressing "regret" that there was no mention of an EU referendum in last week's Queen's Speech.

Mr Cameron, who will be absent due to a visit to the United States, has ordered his ministers to abstain if the vote is allowed to be held.

There is no known precedent in modern Westminster politics for the prospect of members of a governing party voting for a motion criticising their own Queen's Speech, and of ministers not rallying to its defence.

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