Cameron Tightens Leash on Ministers Pushing for EU Exit Vote

  • Ministers with long-held views can disagree with `respect'
  • Until date set, Tories can campaign for EU but not against

David Cameron tightened the leash on ministers who thought they were getting the freedom to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.

After announcing on Jan. 5 that the usual government rules of collective responsibility were to be suspended, the prime minister wrote on Monday to all ministers setting out how this will work. Until he announces the referendum, they are free to argue for EU membership, but not against it.

Once he’s set a date for the vote, ministers who have “long-standing and sincerely held views” will be allowed to oppose him. They won’t be able to call on the support of their civil servants, and their political aides will only be able to work with them in their spare time, and after notifying Cameron’s office. They’ll also have to restrain their opposition to the EU when speaking in Parliament.

“The government isn’t going to be standing by in this,” Helen Bower, Cameron’s spokeswoman, told reporters. “The government is going to take a position.”

Debates over EU membership helped bring down the last two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Cameron, determined to avoid their fate, is giving ministers room to express their position, but not so much that they threaten the stability of the government.

The prime minister closed his letter with a warning to ministers to “treat each other with appropriate respect and courtesy.” He said that, despite splits, he wants to lead “a united, harmonious, mutually respectful team.”

Backing Europe

Over the past few days, ministers have started to come out more clearly in favor of continued membership of the 28-nation bloc. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said he can’t envisage campaigning for a vote to quit, and three other members of the cabinet have also made pro-EU statements.

One euro-skeptic former minister criticized the conditions set by Cameron.

“It’s increasingly clear that it’ll be one rule for those who want to stay in the EU at all costs, and another rule for the rest,” former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said in an e-mailed statement. “It looks like the government is focusing its energies on gearing up the full weight of the Whitehall machine to campaign to keep us in the EU rather than on bringing powers back from Brussels.”

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