DAVID Cameron last night threatened to sack Euro-sceptic Tory ministers who do or say anything to “undermine” his negotiations for a new EU deal.
The Prime Minister sent a letter to every member of the Government setting out strict limits on their freedom to speak out on Britain’s European future in the run up to his in-or-out referendum.
He also announced that frontbenchers will be banned from making Parliamentary speeches in favour of an EU exit throughout the forthcoming referendum campaign.
His warning infuriated senior Tory Euro-sceptics yesterday, triggering fresh accusations that anti-Brussels frontbenchers are being “gagged”
Former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson, a leading Tory Euro-sceptic, said: “It’s welcome that ministers who want to campaign to take back control from the EU will be able to do so without resigning, but it’s increasingly clear that it’ll be one rule for those who want to stay in the EU at all costs, and another rule for the rest.
“Ministers who wish to extol the virtues of the EU have been given a green light to do so already, while those who want to take back control are currently gagged and will only be allowed to speak from the backbenches.
“It looks like the Government is focusing its energies on gearing up the full weight of the Whitehall machine to campaign to keep us in the EU rather than on bringing powers back from Brussels.”
Mr Cameron’s letter sought to clarify the rules on Cabinet collective responsibility in the run up to the referendum.
At least seven Tory Cabinet ministers are known to be preparing to call for Britain to quit the EU and several of them were understood to be furious about being banned from making their views public.
Last week, Mr Cameron announced there would be a “special arrangement” to allow ministers to take different positions on Europe during the referendum campaign.
In his letter yesterday, he confirmed he had discussed details of the arrangement with Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood.
The letter said ministers will be allowed to make their views public once his negotiations with other EU leaders were completed and the Cabinet had formally come to a decision about whether to back the deal in the referendum.
Until that point however, all government ministers had to publicly support his negotiation strategy.
“All ministers should continue to support the position set out in our manifesto and say or do nothing that will undermine the Government’s negotiating position,” he wrote.
He also insisted: “This wholly exceptional arrangement will apply only to the question of whether we should remain in the EU or leave.”
All other EU-related business including debates and Parliamentary votes “will continue to be subject to the normal rules of collective responsibility and party discipline”, the Prime Minister said.
He also warned: “We will need to be flexible and apply common sense.”
Ministers would continue to be banned from speaking out against official Government policy on Europe once the referendum campaign began.
“Ministers who choose to depart from the Government’s recommendation because of long-standing and sincerely held views will not be expected directly to contradict such a position while otherwise defending Government policy in Parliament,” Mr Cameron wrote.
He also made clear that Euro-sceptic ministers could not enlist Civil Service help for their opposition to EU membership.
“It will not be appropriate or permissible for the Civil Service or individual civil servants to support ministers who oppose the Government’s official position by providing briefings on speech material on this matter,” the letter said.
Ministerial special advisers would only be allowed to campaign for an EU exit outside of their Whitehall working hours, the letter added.
Mr Cameron ended his letter by pleading: “It will be very important during this period for ministers on both sides of the debate to treat each other with appropriate respect and courtesy.”
Liz Bileny, chief executive of Leave.EU, said: “The question of Cabinet collective responsibility is a distraction from the truth that the Prime Minister’s negotiations are utterly worthless as he asked for nothing substantial and will be granted nothing substantial.
“Cabinet Minister’s should have been rejecting the Prime Minister’s fudge already, just like so many of his backbenchers and former ministers have been doing in the last few weeks.
“How long will this charade last? If there is no agreement in February will Cabinet EU-sceptics continue to sit on their hands? It all goes to show why the campaign to leave the EU must belong to the people and not politicians living in the disconnected world of the Westminster bubble.”
Many Westminster insiders now expect Mr Cameron’s in-or-out referendum, which must be held by the end of 2017 at the latest, to take place this summer.
His demands for changes in Britain’s EU membership terms, including tougher rules to restrict welfare claims by migrants, are due to be discussed at a crunch summit in Brussels next month.
Mr Cameron yesterday insisted he could still win the “great prize” of a new EU deal for the UK through his negotiations with European leaders.
Following a speech in north London, the Prime Minister acknowledged that there were differing views in the Cabinet about Britain’s European future but insisted he could win a new relationship with Brussels.
“The Government is not neutral in some great debate about the future of our country.
“The Government has a very clear policy, which every member of the Government has signed up to, which is that we are going to conduct a renegotiation about Britain’s place in Europe, with very clear goals.
“We are going to carry out a referendum and we are aiming to achieve Britain in a reformed European Union.
“That is the policy which they are all working towards, a policy I hope will be successful, we will have those discussions in February.
“At that moment, people who have long-standing views will be able to campaign in a personal capacity.”