Conservative tensions over Europe intensified today as David Cameron rebuked senior Cabinet ministers for suggesting they would vote now for Britain to quit the European Union.
The Prime Minister dismissed the question as “hypothetical” after the Education Secretary Michael Gove and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond became the most senior Conservatives to indicate they would consider supporting Britain’s exit from the EU.
Mr Cameron, who is in Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, also hit out at prominent Tories who favour withdrawal for “throwing in the towel” before negotiations had even begun on the UK’s place in Europe.
Mr Gove and Mr Hammond rocked Tory unity yesterday by saying he would vote to leave the bloc if there was a referendum today – a view thought to be shared by dozens of Tory MPs.
But Mr Cameron told reporters travelling to Washington with him: “There isn’t going to be a referendum tomorrow, so it’s a hypothetical question.”
He also made clear he was not prepared to bow to calls by Tory MPs to bring forward his promised referendum from 2017 following four years of negotiations to repatriate powers from Brussels to London.
“What matters is making sure we do everything we can to reform the European Union, to make it more open and competitive and to improve Britain’s relations with the EU,” he said.
“[We need to] change those relations so that when we have the referendum before the end of 2017 we give the British public a real choice, a proper choice. Every Conservative cabinet minister is confident that we will be able to deliver those changes and so that is what we are pushing towards.”
He attacked two Tories from the Thatcher years – the former Chancellor Lord Lawson and the former Treasury Chief Secretary Michael Portillo – for announcing they would vote ‘no’ in the in-out membership referendum promised by Mr Cameron by the end of 2017.
“We shouldn’t give up before a negotiation has started. It seems an extraordinary way to go about things,” the Prime Minister said.
“The idea of throwing in the towel before the negotiation has started is a very strange opinion.”
He defended his decision to instruct Tory ministers to abstain in a Commons vote expected on Wednesday regretting the absence of paving legislation for a referendum in the Queen’s Speech last week.
“I think it is a very sensible approach to say it wouldn't be right for ministers to vote for an amendment to their own Queen's Speech so it makes sense for ministers to abstain. But equally it is perfectly acceptable for Conservative MPs to vote for this amendment which is in line with the party's policy.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, accused the rebel Tory Eurosceptics of undermining Mr Cameron, being “silly” and showing “very foolish tactical judgement” . He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What they’re doing is putting the Prime Minister in an impossible situation. He cannot simply vote for this amendment because it would split the Coalition right down the middle. But at the same time, the motion cannot win, because there is not a parliamentary majority for it. This amendment isn’t going to get carried.
"So all those supporting it will have achieved is, they will have split their own party, they will, as you have seen, cast questions over the Prime Minister’s authority, and indirectly, unintentionally, they will be helping the Labour Party’s prospects at the next election.”