Cameron Faces Calls to Let U.K. Ministers Campaign to Leave EU

  • Ministers who support EU exit may be forced to resign
  • Spokesman for Tory rank-and-file lawmakers backs free vote

David Cameron is facing calls to allow ministers to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, opening a potential rift between the prime minister and members of his government.

U.K. ministers are usually expected to abide by the principle of collective responsibility, which means supporting the government’s agreed position even if they have personal doubts. With Cameron on course to campaign to stay inside the EU, ministers who wish to publicly disagree would currently have to quit their posts.

Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, which speaks for Conservative members of parliament, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that there was an “overwhelming case” for allowing freedom of conscience on the issue.

“There are clearly opposing opinions around the cabinet table,” Brady said. “Many of the senior ministers sitting there have campaigned all their political lives to return powers to Britain from the EU. To try and force members of the Cabinet to ignore their convictions would be a catastrophic mistake.”

Brady’s call was backed by former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who told the BBC that it was “a matter of conscience.” That is the basis on which governments sometimes offer “free votes” on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. While a free vote would be unusual for what is clearly a political decision, there is a precedent: The last time the U.K. had a referendum on Europe, in 1975, the Labour government allowed Cabinet ministers to campaign on either side.

Cameron, who agreed to a referendum to deal with splits within the Tories, has so far managed to keep a lid on these divisions. In June he appeared to signal that he would expect ministers to support him, saying the government couldn’t be “neutral” on the matter. The following day he backed away from that, with his office saying his words had been “over-interpreted.”

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