This Blog suggested before Christmas that David Cameron is now in an impossible position over the EU referendum.
No matter whether he decides to allow a free vote or to whip his MPs, he will reveal that his party is deeply divided and that he has no control.
Current Tory policy is for the UK to remain in the European Union and the principle of collective responsibility means cabinet members must follow this line.
But many within the Parliamentary Conservative Party believe the UK should leave – especially after David Cameron’s disastrous tour of EU countries before Christmas, in an attempt to drum up support for reforms which his own MPs criticised as weak. They want a free vote.
Tory grandee Michael Heseltine said Cameron would be a “laughing stock” if he gave in to such a demand, and would be inviting “civil war” in the Conservative Party. It seems he has declined to comment on today’s developments.
His decision is likely to avoid the resignations of several senior ministers over the referendum, such as Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, who is a staunch Eurosceptic. Others likely to campaign for the UK to leave include Chris Grayling, the leader of the house, and Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary.
A source said the prime minister was planning to set out his thinking when he makes a statement on the December European summit to the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon.
Cameron is hoping to complete negotiations with Brussels at the February summit, at which he wants to win concessions on national sovereignty and migrant benefits.
At the end of last year, Steve Baker, the co-chair of the Conservatives for Britain campaign to leave the EU, said most Tory MPs were leaning towards voting for the UK to leave as the mood of the party had hardened against Cameron’s attempted renegotiation.
Baker, whose group is allied to the cross-party Vote Leave campaign, said: “Over half of the Conservative party is strongly leaning to leave.” In light of the clear split, he warned there would be “problems ahead” if the prime minister did not allow free campaigning on both sides of the debate.
“I think for the sake of the country, party and quality of debate it would be much better if ministers have freedom to speak their mind on the EU issue,” he said at the time.
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