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article imageUK ministers can campaign for either side in EU referendum: PM

By Katherine Haddon (AFP)     Jan 5, 2016 in Politics

Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed Tuesday that his ministers will be allowed to campaign for either side in a referendum on whether or not Britain should stay in the European Union.

The move, likely to be seen as a major concession to eurosceptics, means Cameron will not have to sack ministers who want to campaign to leave the EU for breaching the convention of collective cabinet responsibility.

Cameron's centre-right Conservative party has a large eurosceptic contingent and it is thought that several high-profile ministers could join the campaign for Britain to leave the EU.

The prime minister himself, who travels to Germany and Hungary from Wednesday for further talks, says he will campaign to stay in the EU if he can secure reforms.

"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 the House of Commons.

Officials are hopeful that a deal on Britain's renegotiation to its ties with Brussels can be agreed at a summit next month despite divisions over Cameron's demands to limit benefit payments to EU migrants.

While ministers would only be able to speak out after a deal is sealed, Tuesday's concession highlights some of the problems Cameron could face in keeping his government together while ministers campaign against each other over the referendum.

Britain must by law hold the referendum by the end of 2017 but analysts say the vote could be held as early as the middle of this year if the renegotiation is completed in time.

- Disaster averted? -

It is thought that several eurosceptics in Cameron's cabinet could campaign for Britain to leave the EU, including Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling.

Nigel Farage, leader of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), said Cameron had done "the right thing".

"He may be surprised now just how many ministers come out in support of leaving," he added on Sky News.

Kenneth Clarke, a Conservative former minister and senior pro-European, criticised the move and said Cameron faced a "very difficult task" to "avoid splitting the party".

"He probably has been forced into it, as people have been saying, because one or two of them are obviously already briefing the newspapers and have been for some time," he told BBC radio.

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign which wants Britain to quit the EU, also welcomed the move.

"We've had lots of useful meetings with government ministers and look forward to working with them much more closely now," he said.

But Will Straw, executive of Britain Stronger in Europe, which wants Britain to remain in the EU, believed the "majority" of Conservative ministers would campaign for EU membership.

Political analysts said Cameron had little choice but to let his cabinet campaign according to their consciences.

"To impose collective responsibility upon ministers would have been to court disaster, a mass resignation that few governments can survive," wrote political commentator Matthew d'Ancona in the Guardian newspaper.

Opinion polls suggest the British public is finely balanced on whether to leave the EU or stay in, with a slight move towards leaving in recent months.

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