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Last updated: May 13, 2013 9:44 am
Two senior cabinet members have admitted they would vote to leave the EU in the event of an immediate referendum, as David Cameron is braced for a backbench revolt against the government’s policies on Europe.
Michael Gove, education secretary, said on Sunday that a UK exit would be “perfectly tolerable” and even bring some benefits, while Philip Hammond, defence secretary, later said that he was on Mr Gove’s “side of the argument”.
Even though both ministers backed the prime minister’s long-term policy of renegotiating the UK’s relationship in Europe, their alliance with the exit lobby will do little to unite the party amid a growing rift on EU membership.
Up to 100 Tory backbenchers are expected to support an upcoming motion which expresses “regret” that the Queen’s Speech did not contain a bill paving the way for a referendum.
This open attack by government MPs against their legislative programme threatens to embarrass Mr Cameron, who has pledged to hold a referendum on membership by the end of 2017 if he wins the election, but says his Liberal Democrat coalition partners are preventing him going further at this stage.
On Monday morning Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Conservative former foreign secretary, accused the proposers of the amendment of “poor judgment”, saying they had put the prime minister in an “impossible situation”.
“This amendment isn’t going to get carried, so that all those supporting it will have achieved – they will have split their own party, they will have cast questions over the prime minister’s authority and indirectly, unintentionally, they will be helping the Labour party’s prospects at the next general election,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
Party divisions appeared to deepen after Boris Johnson, London’s Tory mayor, intervened in the debate, arguing that leaving the EU would achieve little because “[the UK] would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused” by Brussels.
Writing in Monday’s Daily Telegraph the mayor, who has been mooted as a potential leadership rival to Mr Cameron, said Britain’s real problem was that its workforce suffered from “sloth” compared with foreign counterparts.
Mr Gove said on Sunday that he would abide by instructions from the Tory high command for government ministers to abstain from the motion on the Queen’s Speech, but did not deny suggestions that he would vote to leave the EU if there were a referendum “now”.
“Yes, I’m not happy with our position with the European Union,” Mr Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. “My ideal is . . . to recognise the current situation is no good, to say that life outside would be perfectly tolerable, we could contemplate it, there would be certain advantages.”
Mr Hammond later concurred with this view, telling Radio Five Live: “If the choice is between a European Union written exactly as it is today and not being a part of that then I have to say that I’m on the side of the argument that Michael Gove has put forward.”
This is clearly an attempt by the Tories to deflect the attention from the fact they’re in complete turmoil over Europe
- A Lib Dem aide
But Mr Gove did back the prime minister against Labour claims that allowing Tory MPs a free vote meant the party leader was being “pushed around’’.
“You can’t have a civil war when everyone is on the same side,” he said, adding that his rebellious colleagues should be allowed to “let off steam”.
Downing Street insisted that Mr Cameron was still “relaxed” about the Queen’s Speech motion. One adviser defended the decision that ministers should abstain, emphasising this did not mean they were disagreeing with the legislative programme.
However, reports in The Sunday Times that Tory aides to Mr Gove and Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, were preparing to vote with the rebels strengthened Labour’s accusations of policy being derailed by infighting.
Playing down party squabbles, Mr Gove moved the fight into Lib Dem territory, saying opposition from Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, to Tory-led childcare reforms was just an attempt to shore up activist support when his leadership was under threat.
A Lib Dem aide denied these suggestions. “It seems clear . . . that the only person with leadership ambitions is Michael Gove,” the aide said. “This is clearly an attempt by the Tories to deflect the attention from the fact they’re in complete turmoil over Europe.”
Meanwhile, Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, refused to clarify Labour’s position on a referendum.
“I think [a commitment to a referendum] is the wrong thing to do now, but I don’t think we should set our face against consulting the British people,” Mr Balls told Sky News. “I don’t think we should say anything which gives the impression we don’t understand their concerns.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler
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