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Cameron warns ministers over EU


Former minister Owen Paterson is a backer of the Conservatives for Britain group

Former minister Owen Paterson is a backer of the Conservatives for Britain group

Former minister Owen Paterson is a backer of the Conservatives for Britain group

Ministers will be forced to quit if they want to campaign for Britain to pull out of the European Union , David Cameron has warned.

The Prime Minister said that the Government would not be "neutral" on the issue of whether the UK quits Europe, and insisted that everyone in his administration is signed up to his strategy of securing sufficient reform through renegotiation to allow them to recommend a Yes vote.

Speaking at the G7 summit in Germany, Mr Cameron said he was taking a "very open-minded view" on the timing of the referendum, making clear he has not ruled out staging it on May 5 2016, despite Electoral Commission advice that he should avoid a clash with elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, London Mayor and English councils on that date. So far, he has promised only that it will be held before the end of 2017.

He said: "If you want to be part of the Government you have to take the view that we are engaged in an exercise of renegotiation to have a referendum and that will lead to a successful outcome.

"Everyone in government has signed up to the programme set out in the Conservative manifesto."

Mr Cameron is walking a political tightrope as he seeks to win over support in Europe for his bid to reform the UK's links to Brussels while keeping his party united on the deeply divisive issue.

Eurosceptic Conservatives have made clear they are ready to campaign for exit if the Prime Minister fails to come up with a package they believe delivers real change.

At least 50 Tory MPs, including former Cabinet ministers Owen Paterson and John Redwood, have signed up to the newly-formed Conservatives for Britain (CfB) to keep the pressure on ahead on the popular vote.

It comes after Barack Obama made a very public intervention in the debate by declaring that America is "looking forward" to the United Kingdom remaining part of the EU.

The US president gave the strongest indication yet that Washington wants a Yes vote in the referendum on Britain's membership of the EU as he met the Prime Minister for talks in the margins of the G7 summit of world leaders in Schloss Elmau, Germany.

Greeting Mr Cameron at the start of the bilateral talks, Mr Obama said the US-UK relationship remains strong, telling reporters: "We have no closer partner around the world on a whole host of issues."

He added: "I would note that one of the great values of having the United Kingdom in the European Union is its leadership and strength on a whole host of global challenges, so we very much are looking forward to the United Kingdom staying part of the European Union because we think its influence is positive not just for Europe, but also for the world."

Mr Cameron indicated that he does not want to see Conservative MPs putting forward amendments to the Bill paving the way for the referendum, saying: "We'll be putting forward the Bill that we think is the right Bill. It will be a matter for Parliament to discuss and debate it."

He added: "I am carrying out a renegotiation in the national interest to get a result that I believe will be in the national interest. I'm confident I can get that.

"And if I can get a position where Britain would be better off in a reformed Europe, then obviously that's not something the Government's neutral about. It's not a sort of, 'On the one hand ... on the other hand,' approach. It's that if I can secure what I want to secure, I will secure what I think is the right outcome for Britain.

"The Government isn't neutral in this. We have a clear view: renegotiate, get a deal that's in Britain's interest and then recommend Britain stays in it."

On the timing of the vote, Mr Cameron said: "My view is that we should hold the referendum when we've completed the negotiation. On whether it should be with other elections or not, I take a very open-minded view.

"Personally, I think the British public are quite capable of going to a polling booth and making two important decisions rather than just one, and I think the evidence has shown that.

"But what will determine the timing of the referendum is not the timing of other elections. What will determine the timing is the outcome of the negotiation, but with that deadline at the end of 2017."

CfB's Westminster chairman, Conservative MP Steve Baker, said there were "dozens" of Tory MPs who would vote to quit the EU now and would not settle for anything less than "fundamental change".

Asked about the new group, Mr Cameron said: "In the end, people have to make up their own mind. But it will be the public, it will be the people that decide, not one group of MPs or another group of MPs."

Mr Cameron has previously refused to rule out campaigning for a British exit if his renegotiation bid fails but has insisted he is "confident" of securing changes.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond - who said in 2013 he would vote to quit the EU if conditions remained as they were then - said the Government is keeping "all our options open" over Britain's future.

He told BBC 1's Andrew Marr Show: "If our European partners were to simply block us and say look we can't do any of this stuff, we can't meet any of your demands, we can't fix this relationship between Britain and the European Union then, of course, we have got to keep all our options open."

Spending limits for the "lead" campaign in the referendum are being raised from £5 million to £7 million, according to reports.

Downing Street said levels were set in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the increase is in line with inflation.

Other parties running separate campaigns will also have their cap lifted by the same proportion of 40%.

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