Prime Minister David Cameron has warned ministers may have to back him or resign over any deal he negotiates over Britain’s membership of the European Union.
Speaking at a G7 summit in Bavaria yesterday, The Guardian reports Cameron was asked whether the prospect of a free vote for ministers had been ruled out.
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.”
The Government has promised a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017, although some groups have urged the Prime Minister to resolve the question at an earlier date.
Pressed on whether ministers opposing membership would then have to resign, Cameron said: “If I can get a position where Britain would be better off in a reformed Europe then obviously that is not something the Government is neutral about. It’s not a sort of ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ approach. If I can secure what I want to secure, I will have secured what I think is the right outcome for Britain.
“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.”
The Times reported at the end of the year that up to nine of Cameron’s previous government may be in favour of Britain leaving the EU.
Tory blog Conservative Home has named ministers including work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan-Smith, justice secretary Michael Gove, foreign secretary Philip Hammond, leader of the Commons Chris Grayling and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Letwin as being supportive of an EU exit.
However, Cameron has since moved to clarify his position, and claimed he was calling only for government ministers to back the renegotiation process, rather than a vote to remain in the EU.
Speaking at a press conference, Cameron said: “If you are part of the government then clearly you are part of the team that is aiming for the renegotiation.”
He added: “We are going to have to take this step by step. I know everyone wants the answer to the last step now, but I’m afraid you can’t have that. It’s a hypothetical question.
“What we are going to have to do is get on with the renegotiation and get the best deal for Britain.”
Cameron’s comments come just after the launch of campaign group Conservatives for Britain.
The group of more than 50 Tory MPs has committed to pushing an “out” campaign if Cameron fails to secure radical reforms in Europe.
It is co-chaired by Steve Baker, who sat on the Treasury select committee during the last parliament.
The group also counts former minister Owen Paterson, former shadow minister Bernard Jenkin and MEP David Campbell Bannerman among its members.
Baker told the Telegraph this weekend: “We wish David Cameron every success but unless senior EU officials awake to the possibility that one of the EU’s largest members is serious about a fundamental change in our relationship, our recommendation to British voters seems likely to be exit.
“We need a parliament which can decide the level of British taxpayers’ contributions to the EU, what regulations should apply to our businesses, how to control EU migration and our trade relations with the rest of the world.”