David Cameron backs down over threat to sack ministers who campaign for Britain to exit EU

Downing Street insists principle of collective government responsibility only applies to the renegotiation phase and anything beyond that is 'hypothetical'

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David Cameron has appeared to back down over his threat to sack ministers if they campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.

Downing Street said the media had "over-interpreted" the Prime Minister's remarks yesterday when he told a press conference at the G7 summit in Germany that everyone in his government would have to back his strategy to "renegotiate, get a deal that's in Britain's interest and then recommend Britain stays in" the EU.

A host of prominent Conservative MPs reacted angrily to suggestions he would demand his ministers back his position in the referendum, with David Davis saying he risked reopening the party's "bitter" wounds over Europe and Andrew Mitchell warning the "lid could blow off" the party if ministers were denied a chance to follow their conscience.

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David Cameron has been warned by figures in his own party not to force his ministers to campaign in favour of Britain's continued membership of the EU

But the Prime Minister's official spokeswoman told journalists today that no decision had been made on whether the principle of collective government responsibility would apply to the referendum campaign itself, insisting Mr Cameron had been referring only to the renegotiation phase.

"The Prime Minister was clearly talking yesterday about the position of collective responsibility during the renegotiation - a position the PM has set out previously, including in the House during the Queen's Speech debate," the spokeswoman said. 

Asked whether ministers would be bound by collective government responsibility during the referendum campaign itself, she said: "He has not set that out and we are not getting into any hypotheticals on the approach to the referendum."

Number 10's bid to clarify Mr Cameron's words came in the wake of the angry backlash from backbench Tories.

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David Davis is one of the Tories' longstanding Eurosceptics

Speaking at the G7 summit in Germany yesterday, Mr Cameron said: "We have a clear view: renegotiate, get a deal that's in Britain's interest and then recommend Britain stays in it.

Warning his ministers, he added: "If you want to be part of the Government, you have to take the view that we are engaged in an exercise of renegotiation to have a referendum that will lead to a successful outcome.

"Everyone in government has signed up to the programme set out in the Conservative manifesto."

Mr Davis said the Prime Minister’s "my way or the highway" approach to party management exposes a lack of confidence that he will secure the reforms he hopes to achieve as he bids to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU before an in-out referendum before the end of 2017.

And he is in danger of turning a "decent debate" over the EU into "a bitter argument" within the Tories, returning it to the damaging rows that split the party under John Major in the 1990s.

 

The 1992 Maastricht Treaty sparked years of trouble for Mr Major and his small majority gave his backbench rebels significant influence and Mr Davis warned Mr Cameron, who has an even smaller majority, that he must be more delicate in managing his own party than yesterday's words suggested.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime, history-changing event. For many people, it's the reason they got into politics. Not mine, but for some it is," he told the Today programme.

"And yet the only people who will not have the freedom to vote and speak on it, according to this, are ministers in the Government, which, of itself, is extraordinary.

"That will likely lead, I'm sorry to say, to some people resigning from the Government or being fired.

He added: "This doesn't show a great deal of confidence in the outcome of those negotiations, that he has to say now 'My way or the highway, stay and play the line, or leave'."

It came after Mr Cameron was warned yesterday that 100 Tory MPs will vote for Britain to leave the EU unless he wins the reforms they have demanded.

The Conservatives for Britain group, which launched yesterday, claimed that up to nine Cabinet ministers could support a No vote to the EU in the referendum.

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