PM leaves door open for no campaign
David Cameron has left the door open for Government ministers to campaign for Britain to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum, insisting he will not announce until nearer the time whether they will be bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility.
The Prime Minister said he had been "misinterpreted" in widespread reports which suggested he would sack ministers who refuse to fall in line with his view in the poll, which he has promised by the end of 2017.
But he made clear that the Government will not take a neutral stance in the referendum campaign, insisting: "I don't believe the Government will be a bystander in this. The Government will have a clear view."
Following last month's election victory, Mr Cameron has kicked off the renegotiation of Britain's membership which he hopes will allow him to recommend a Yes vote in the referendum. But he stressed that he is himself not yet committed to campaigning for continued EU membership, repeatedly telling a press conference at the G7 summit in Germany that: "I rule nothing out."
The PM is planning a series of one-on-one talks to discuss the UK's reform demands with EU counterparts on the fringes of a Europe/Latin America meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, ahead of a European Council summit at the end of the month.
Senior Conservatives cautioned the PM against trying to force ministers to toe the line on an issue which is believed to split the Cabinet. In the UK's last referendum on Europe in 1975, then prime minister Harold Wilson avoided splitting his party on the emotive issue by allowing ministers to campaign on opposing sides.
Former shadow home secretary David Davis told Sky News: "It is vital that ordinary decent honourable members of the government - ministers in the Cabinet or junior ministers - are allowed, as everybody else is, to vote the way they want, speak the way they want, campaign the way they want.
"Sure, they should wait until after the negotiation is complete - that is when they will know what the deal is going to be. But it should be made very, very clear indeed that after that point they are free men and women to do as all free men and women in Britain can do in the referendum - vote the way they want."
Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful backbench Tory 1922 Committee, said that MPs should be given "space" to express "deeply-held convictions".
"It is generally better to work with the grain, to engage colleagues, than to try to force them into places where they cannot go," Mr Brady told Total Politics magazine.
"And in terms of the referendum and certainly the process of healing, I think it is easier the more space people be given to express their honest deeply-held convictions."
Mr Cameron sparked consternation among some Tories with comments at the Schloss Elmau summit in which he appeared to suggest that ministers could be sacked if they want to campaign for British exit after what he deems to be a successful renegotiation of the terms of the UK's membership.
The Prime Minister said the Government will not be "neutral" on the issue of whether the UK leaves the 28-nation bloc, adding: "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."
But he today insisted he had been referring only to the need for ministers to observe collective responsibility during the process of renegotiation.
"What I was saying yesterday was that I don't believe the Government will be a bystander in this. The Government will have a clear view," said the Prime Minister.
"The view I want us to get to is a successful renegotiation, reform the European Union and being able to recommend that Britain should stay in the European Union. In that case, the Government's not going to be a bystander, the Government will have a very clear view."
He refused to be drawn on whether a minister could remain in the Government if he or she disagreed with his judgment on the outcome of the negotiations.
"You are asking me a hypothetical question," said Mr Cameron. "We are going to have to take this in stages. There will come a time when we get on to the next stage and that question you ask will merit an answer and at that stage it will get an answer."
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) group, which says it is ready to campaign for British exit even if the PM believes that staying in would be in the national interest.
Meanwhile, US president Barack Obama has increased pressure on the PM by publicly declaring that America is "looking forward" to the UK remaining part of the EU.
Mr Cameron denied that the Tories' difficulties over Europe were an echo of the party's 1990s' splits, insisting there was "real unity" behind his plan.
Communities and Local Government Minister James Wharton, who as a backbencher piloted legislation for the EU referendum, insisted it was "reasonable to expect" that the principle of collective ministerial responsibility would apply.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If we get to a position where the Government's position is that this renegotiation has been successful - and the details will be there for all to see at that point - then it is reasonable to expect that collective responsibility will apply."