London Evening Standard
David Cameron was yesterday accused of trying to “spin” his own Cabinet after senior Tories hinted that ministers would be given freedom to campaign to leave the European Union.
A top Eurosceptic minister scorned the idea that No 10 was issuing private reassurances, telling the Standard: “It sounds like spin.”
Tempers in the party are fraying over Cameron’s attempts to gag anti-EU members of the government, while at the same time stepping up efforts to massage public opinion in favour of a vote to stay in the club of 28 states.
In the past few days, former prime minister John Major, former party leader William Hague and former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine have all made powerful calls to remain in the EU. Eurosceptic MPs believe the interventions were co-ordinated by No 10 to influence activists while they meet MPs during the parliamentary recess.
A critical battle is being fought behind the scenes over whether ministers will be muzzled from campaigning for an Out vote, which would force committed sceptics to resign from the government.
In the Cabinet, Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, Theresa Villiers, Northern Ireland Secretary, and leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, are all thought likely to vote for Britain to leave.
Boris Johnson is waiting to see what deal Cameron brings back from an EU summit, which was last week postponed until February.
Cameron reportedly assured at least one minister that they would be “free to take sides” in the referendum once he had finished his negotiation of a new membership deal. Other reports say that senior Tory figures have given similar assurances of the gag being removed at the last minute, creating an impression that No 10 is privately willing to allow a free debate.
However, one minister at the heart of the debate knew of no private assurances by No 10.
Moreover, a No 10 source denied that any hints had been given, saying that Cameron would only decide his position once the renegotiations of Britain’s membership were complete. An official No 10 source said: “Decisions on what happens after a deal has been struck will be made once that deal has been finalised.”
Graham Brady, the powerful chairman of the 1922 Committee, which represents Tory MPs, this week spoke up for a free debate. Lord Lawson, the former chancellor, said it would be “sensible” to let MPs speak out.
But Lord Heseltine claimed Cameron would become “a laughing stock” around the world if he copied former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, who gave his ministers freedom to campaign on either side in the last Europe referendum, staged on June 5, 1975.
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