Cabinet ministers join Tory rebels in latest blow to David Cameron on EU –

Mr Cameron has promised to “renegotiate” the terms of Britain’s EU membership before putting the new deal to voters in an in/out referendum and has embarked on a round of diplomatic talks as he seeks allies in Brussels.

Angela Merkel and David Cameron (Barcroft)

However, Tory eurosceptics have accused Mr Cameron of attempting to “stitch up” the referendum for a “Yes” to Europe vote, by preparing to hold it as early as next May, with little opportunity for debate or scrutiny of his new deal.

They fear the government is already “loading the dice” in favour of a Yes vote, by proposing to scrap the convention that would ban impartial civil servants and government departments from getting involved in referendum campaigning.

If the whole government machine is backing a Yes vote to continued EU membership, Eurosceptics fear, the No campaign does not stand a chance of convincing the public that Britain’s best interests would lie in leaving the EU.

One leading rebel said scrapping the so-called “purdah” rules banning civil service involvement in the referendum was “a complete outrage”.

Up to 80 MPs could rebel over the issue when the EU Referendum Bill is debated next in the Commons this week, potentially inflicting a major defeat on Mr Cameron.

Separately, MPs including Sir William Cash, who chaired a parliamentary committee on Europe, and the former Cabinet ministers, John Redwood and Owen Paterson, have tabled an amendment to the Bill demanding that the referendum campaigning period last for at least 16 weeks.

This is designed to ensure that the “out” campaign is guaranteed sufficient time to make its case to voters.

Other MPs who have signed the amendment include the former Labour minister Kate Hoey, and the former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox.

Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe, who is chairing Conservatives for Britain (CfB), said his group was supporting Mr Cameron’s efforts to negotiate better terms for the UK’s membership.

But if Brussels refuses to give the Prime Minister the truly radical changes the group wants, which would see a new relationship based almost entirely on trade, CfB will urge voters to choose to withdraw from the EU.

Mr Baker said there was “a spectrum of views” about what outcome of Mr Cameron’s talks will be.

About a fifth of members believe a satisfactory deal is “unlikely” and therefore “expect to campaign to leave the EU”, Mr Baker said.

“About three fifths think a successful renegotiation is possible and will make a decision when the renegotiated position becomes clear. Many of them would vote to leave if the question were tomorrow on the present basis,” he added. Others could choose to support Mr Cameron, whatever he achieves.

Mr Baker declined to say whether any ministers had joined CfB.

However, a source close to CfB said: “A number of government ministers have now signed up, including from the Cabinet.” Two separate sources also confirmed privately that CfB had ministerial support.

The disclosure follows a major row last week after the Prime Minister warned his Cabinet colleagues they would be forced to quit the government if they wanted to campaign for Britain to leave the EU.

Mr Cameron was forced to back down as critics including Boris Johnson and David Davis warned that the order would backfire, and potentially cause damaging splits in the party.

A number of senior Cabinet ministers have previously expressed deeply Eurosceptic views, including Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, Elizabeth Truss, and Chris Grayling.

In his renegotiation, the Prime Minister has said that he wants new limits on Europeans’ eligibility for British benefits, a guarantee that the UK will never join the euro, and an end to the EU’s political drive towards “ever closer union”.

However, other member states – such as Poland – have already rejected these relatively modest demands.

Mr Cameron will discuss Britain’s renegotiation and referendum at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels at the end of this month.


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