- ‘More than half’ of Tory MPs, including frontbenchers, want to leave the EU
- Claimed scepticism is hardening amid dismay at paucity of PM’s demands
- Mr Cameron has insisted that he will get a ‘good deal’ if Britain stays in
- But many ministers are demanding the right to campaign to quit Europe
Steve Baker, co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain, said that ‘more than half’ of Tory MPs – including a string of leading frontbenchers – want to leave.
He claimed that scepticism about Europe was hardening within the party amid dismay at the paucity of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation demands.
Mr Cameron insists he will get a ‘good deal’ for Britain, despite EU leaders warning last week that they will not accept his demand that migrants should be barred from claiming benefits for the first four years. The rebuff means ministers could be forced to impose measures that would also affect up to 50,000 British youngsters.
Senior Tory sources say Mr Cameron is minded to ban ministers from campaigning for an ‘out’ vote in the referendum expected next summer.
But yesterday he faced calls from senior figures to back down.
Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said it would be a ‘catastrophic mistake’ to try to force ministers to toe the line.
Wycombe MP Mr Baker told Sky News that Mr Cameron would spark a Cabinet walkout if he tried to persuade Eurosceptic ministers to back his campaign to keep Britain in the EU. He said: ‘It is inevitable that some members of the Cabinet will feel they have to resign if they are browbeaten into supporting a deal which is this flimsy.’
Senior Tories believe the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Commons Leader Chris Grayling will all quit unless they are allowed to campaign to leave.
Home Secretary Theresa May, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove could also join the campaign to leave the EU if Mr Cameron fails to secure enough concessions from Brussels.
But Mr Cameron won support from former prime minister Sir John Major, who said it was vital the Cabinet was united behind his push to keep Britain in a reformed EU.
Sir John said it was a ‘fantasy’ to think Britain would be better off outside the EU. He urged ministers to unite behind Mr Cameron ‘for the sake of the country’. Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, yesterday appeared to confirm British fears about the renegotiation, saying Mr Cameron’s demands were ‘completely harmless’.
And former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke said the concessions Mr Cameron achieves in Europe were not the ‘be-all and end-all’ of the argument.
Mr Clarke said Mr Cameron was certain to campaign to stay in, regardless of the outcome of talks at a crunch EU summit in February. He said there was ‘not a possibility’ that the Prime Minister would ever campaign for Britain to quit Europe.