The Conservative secretaries of state are calling on David Cameron to allow Cabinet members to publically back an “out” vote
Six Conservative Cabinet ministers have privately demanded that David Cameron allows them to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, in the biggest split yet over the Prime Minister’s in-out referendum.
The Tory secretaries of state are calling on Mr Cameron to waive “collective responsibility” in the run-up to the referendum, allowing Cabinet members to publically back an “out” vote.
One minister told The Telegraph that it would be “insane” for Mr Cameron to expect openly europsceptic ministers to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU.
Another said it would lead to a “bitterly divided party” and described any attempt to maintain Cabinet collective responsibility ahead of the referendum as “unsustainable”.
It came amid suggestions that Mr Cameron is preparing to “purge” his Cabinet of eurosceptics including Chris Grayling, the Leader of the Commons, in a bid to ensure unity in the build-up to the referendum.
Mr Cameron has pledged to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Brussels before holding a referendum before the end of 2017.
He has said that if his renegotiation is successful, he will campaign for Britain to remain in Europe.
Downing Street insists that no decision has yet been taken on whether collective responsibility will apply ahead of the referendum.
The Telegraph can also disclose that the “ministerial code” – the rulebook for all members of the Government – was last week rewritten to tighten the rules on collective responsibility.
Photo: Julian Simmonds for the Telegraph
It will mean that Cabinet ministers will have to resign if they defy the Prime Minister ahead of the referendum.
A number of senior aides in the Prime Minister’s team have in recent weeks suggested that Mr Cameron is aware that he will have to shelve collective responsibility in the months leading up to the in-out referendum.
However, it has been claimed that George Osborne, the Chancellor, opposes the move and believes all ministers should be campaigning as one.
Another source close to Mr Cameron warned that relinquishing collective responsibility would be disastrous because “newspapers would be lining up to create lists of cabinet ministers on either side”.
Speaking separately to The Telegraph, half-a-dozen cabinet ministers made it clear they thought it would be unacceptable for Mr Cameron to make them campaign for an In vote.
“It would be dynamite if he tried to force cabinet ministers to toe the line,” said one cabinet member. “It would be extremely difficult”.
Another said it would be “insane” to block frontbenchers from campaigning for exit while remaining in the government, adding: “That position is unsustainable.”
A third warned: “If everyone was told to support the ‘In’ campaign, they would have to resign. That would certainly not be ideal.”
A fourth member of Mr Cameron’s senior team said: “There is absolutely no way that I will be voting to stay in the EU. Trying to force all ministers to vote to stay in just wouldn’t work so we have to be free to campaign on the other side.
“Anything else would be unsustainable. You would end up with a bitterly divided party.”
When Britons last voted on Europe in a 1975 referendum ministers in the Labour government were given a free vote – a precedent eurosceptics are keen to be preserved.
In his first revision of the Ministerial Code for five years, Mr Cameron last week changed the rules around collective responsibility.
The version published on Thursday said: “The principle of collective responsibility applies to all Government ministers.”
This is crucially different to the version published in 2010, which said: “The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, applies to all Government ministers.”
The 2015 definition is further tightened with new wording: “Ministers also have an obligation to ensure decisions agreed in Cabinet and Cabinet Committees (and in write-rounds) are implemented.”
“Only three weeks ago Iain Duncan Smith said he was supremely relaxed about ministerial freedom during the campaign.
“This change in the code appears to stand in stark contrast to that atmosphere. I am most concerned that ministers who want to end the supremacy of EU law may have to resign.”
Downing Street insisted that the change was not related to the referendum and was only made because the Tories are no longer in a coalition government.
Photo: Christopher Pledger/Telegraph
A spokesman said that the 2010 ministerial code only allowed collective responsibility to be “explicitly set aside” because of the presence in the Cabinet of Lib Dem ministers who had opposing views.
Asked about calls from Cabinet members for Mr Cameron to shelve collective responsibility, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has made clear that people will have different views. But a decision will not be made until the renegotiation is complete. People have to wait.”
It came as Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, denied claims that Mr Cameron will cull ministers opposed to EU membership before the vote.
Mr Fallon told the BBC: “I think we’re all Eurosceptics now. I don’t see any ‘Eurofanatics’ around the Cabinet table.”
Mr Cameron has been accused of planning to remove three MPs – Cheryl Gillan, Christopher Chope and Sir Edward Leigh – from the parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe because they opposed him in a recent Commons vote on the rules around the referendum.