Pro-‘Brexit’ U.K. Ministers Show Their Colors Straight Away

  • Gove, Grayling, four others head direct to Vote Leave HQ
  • London Mayor Johnson yet to declare how he'll campaign

Six U.K. ministers signaled their intention to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union in June 23’s referendum by heading straight from a cabinet meeting to the headquarters of the Vote Leave campaign group.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove, Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons, were among the six who featured in a picture tweeted by Vote Leave holding a banner reading “Let’s take back control.” They were joined by Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Employment Minister Priti Patel.

Michael Gove leaves a meeting of the Vote Leave campaign

Photographer: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

That immediately put them at odds with the government’s position in favor of continued EU membership announced by Prime Minister David Cameron. The premier convened the cabinet meeting in London Saturday just hours after he returned from Brussels, having secured a deal with fellow EU leaders on revised membership terms for Britain. He announced the referendum date immediately after the two-hour cabinet session.

“This chance may never come again in our lifetimes, which is why I will be true to my principles and take the opportunity this referendum provides to leave an EU mired in the past and embrace a better future,” Gove said in a statement released through the Press Association.

Not Surprised

Cameron said Friday he was disappointed, but not surprised by Gove’s decision to campaign for Britain to leave the 28-nation bloc, a so-called Brexit. He’s perhaps the highest-profile minister to join the “Leave” campaign and it had been uncertain whether he’d decide to back Cameron or not. The other five ministers were all known Euro-skeptics.

Even so, Gove made himself unpopular with teachers and voters in a previous role as education secretary, and Cameron removed him from that job in a 2014 cabinet reshuffle. That raises doubts about his value as a figurehead for the “Leave” campaign.

Two other potential waverers, Business Secretary Sajid Javid and Home Secretary Theresa May,were quick to declare for the “Remain” campaign Saturday. London Mayor Boris Johnson has yet to announce his decision.

The move by the six ministers underscores the divisions over Europe that have long riven Cameron’s Conservatives, helping bring down the party’s previous two prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Breaking Ranks

In an effort to avert cabinet resignations and the sort of in-fighting that beset previous Tory administrations, Cameron told lawmakers in January that ministers would not be disciplined for opposing the official line on the referendum. Cameron followed up his dispensation with a letter to ministers telling them they weren’t free to break ranks until after his renegotiation had been completed.

Polls on the outcome of the referendum have been inconclusive, with most telephone polls showing leads for staying in of more than 10 percentage points, and more frequent online surveys showing the “Leave” vote ahead at times.

An Ipsos Mori poll on Feb. 17 found that after Cameron, it’s the London mayor’s stance on the referendum that matters the most to voters. Forty-four percent of people surveyed said the prime minister’s views will be important when making their decision on whether to vote to stay in or leave the EU, with Johnson on 32 percent.

Sterling Watch

Johnson’s stance may affect the currency markets, Morgan Stanley said Friday in a note to investors. “Should the popular mayor of London throw his hat into the ring and support the no vote camp then GBP should come under immediate pressure,” the bank said.

“I’m going to wait until the Prime Minister does his deal and I will then come off the fence with deafening eclat,” Johnson said Feb. 14 on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Sunday Politics show. “whatever happens you will hear a lot from me, but you don’t have long to wait.”

U.K. ministers must usually abide by the principle of collective responsibility, which means supporting the government’s position even if they have doubts about it. Without dispensation to oppose that stance, ministers campaigning for a “Leave” vote might have been forced to resign.

“It’s ultimately a question of our national sovereignty, the ability to take decisions for ourselves,” Grayling told BBC television. “This country’s future is best off if we are outside the European Union, if we’re able to take decisions in our national interest, if we’re able to control our borders, if we’re able to forge trade deals with parts of the world that are doing exciting economic things, ”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.