Government ministers are to be free to campaign on either side of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, prime minister David Cameron has confirmed.
Cameron told the House of Commons the government will make a clear recommendation on whether the UK should stay in the bloc or leave, following the conclusion of the renegotiation of terms of its membership.
However, he told MPs that it would be open for individual ministers to oppose this recommendation without quitting their government posts, in a significant departure from the usual principle of collective responsibility.
The move will throw a spotlight on senior Tories such as home secretary Theresa May, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the Commons Chris Grayling, and London mayor Boris Johnson, who will face increased pressure to declare which way they will vote.
In a statement to the Commons on last month’s European Council summit, Cameron said: “My intention is at the conclusion of the renegotiation, the government should reach a clear recommendation and then the referendum will be held.
“But it is in the nature of a referendum that it is the people, not the politicians, who decide. As I indicated before Christmas, 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.
"Ultimately, it will be for the British people to decide this country’s future by voting in or out of a reformed European Union in the referendum that only we promised and that only a Conservative-majority government was able to deliver.”
Cameron said last month’s summit set out a “pathway” for agreement among EU national leaders meeting in Brussels in February on a package of reforms to satisfy UK concerns. He has previously indicated that this could set the scene for a referendum later this year.
The prime minister has made clear he will campaign for continued UK membership if his renegotiation is successful.
However, he repeated his insistence that, if a satisfactory package cannot be agreed, he “rules nothing out”.
Cameron’s party remains deeply divided, with MP Steve Baker, of the Conservatives For Britain group, recently suggesting more than half of his colleagues were “strongly leaning to leave”.
Howwever, former prime minister John Major had previously urged the PM to maintain collective responsibility in the campaign, while ex-deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine warned a free vote would make Cameron a “laughing stock”.
Former chancellor Kenneth Clarke said frontbenchers should resign if they disagree with the government, and “firm ground rules” were needed to ensure cabinet ministers campaign “moderately”.