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17th Apr 2021

British ministers can campaign for EU exit

  • British PM Cameron with ministers. "It will be open to individual ministers to take a different personal position", he said. (Photo: UK Parliament)

British prime minister David Cameron will authorise ministers to campaign for a UK exit from the EU even if it is not the government's position when a referendum is organised on the matter, probably this year.

"There will be a clear government position, but it will be open to individual ministers to take a different personal position while remaining part of the government," Cameron told MPs on Tuesday (5 January).

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"My intention is that at the conclusion of the renegotiation, the government should reach a clear recommendation and then the referendum will be held," he said, referring to the ongoing talks over his demands to reform the EU.

Cameron was under pressure from eurosceptic ministers and MPs to let them campaign for a British exit, or ‘Brexit’. His decision to free cabinet members from cabinet collective responsibility helps him stave off the risk of resignations.

The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative party, is said to be ready to campaign for the UK to leave the EU, along with the leader of the Commons, Chris Grayling, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Theresa Villiers.

'Right thing to do'

Two other top Tory leaders, home secretary Theresa May and London mayor Boris Johnson, could also lead the Brexit campaign. May said she would decide her position after the conclusion of negotiations with the EU, while Johnson has not given any indication.

The prime minister also said that he would not resign even if defeated in the referendum.

"It is the nature of a referendum that it is the people, not the politicians who decide," he said.

Voters "can either choose to stay in a reformed European Union, or to leave the European Union", he added. "Come what may, I will continue to lead the government in the way I have."

Cameron's decision was greeted by euroscpetics and critised by EU supporters.

"We welcome the news that ministers will be allowed to campaign with their conscience in the referendum," said Brian Monteith, a leader of the leave.eu camapaign group.

"However, this is not about them. It will be ordinary people such as nurses, taxi drivers and small business owners that need to have their voices heard in this debate," he added.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the eurosceptic Ukip party, said giving ministers freedom to campaign is the "right thing to do".

"I welcome it", he said, adding that Cameron "may be surprised now just how many ministers come out in support of leaving".

On the other hand, Kenneth Clarke, a former chancellor of the exchequer and one of the main Tory europhiles, said the decision was "unfortunate".

Cameron "will have people who are openly challenging the policy of the government on the political future role of this country in the world", he noted.

Clarke called on “eurosceptics to demonstrate they are going to behave in a respectable and sensible way".

"There is such a thing as the national interest", he said.

Deal could take longer

The British internal debate takes place amid negotiations with the EU, after political discussions at the last EU summit in December.

EU leaders said they aim to reach a deal at their next summit on 17-18 February.

Cameron will go to Germany and Hungary this week to talk with chancellor Angela Merkel and prime minister Viktor Orban. But he is trying to avoid being cornered by his partners and he told MPs that talks could last some time.

"We don't know when the deal will be done," he said. "I hope February but it could take considerably longer."

"What matters is getting the substance right, not the speed of the deal," he said.

Eurosceptic MPs put Cameron under pressure

Conservative MPs have asked Cameron to let them campaign for an Out vote, with a former British defence minister saying the UK should leave the union.

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