EU referendum: David Cameron upsets Brexit camp with instructions not to 'undermine' renegotiation

Prime Minister faces accusations of loading the dice against campaign to leave Union after letter to ministers

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Indy Politics

David Cameron faced accusations of loading the dice against the campaign to leave the European Union, after he set out the rules which ministers and civil servants will have to follow in the membership referendum expected in the summer.

The Prime Minister has already promised to suspend the usual practice of “collective responsibility” on the issue once the campaign is officially under way.

But in a letter to ministers, he instructed them to say nothing to “undermine” his efforts to renegotiate  Britain’s relationship with Brussels until his talks with other EU leaders had been completed.

He told them that once the campaign had begun that they would not be able to make the case for “Brexit” in Parliament, and said civil servants would be expected to support the Government’s official line in the campaign.

Mr Cameron has said he is confident of reaching a deal at next month’s EU summit in Brussels, which he would use as the basis of a recommendation to vote for retaining Britain’s membership. The vote could take place as early as late June.

Brexit campaigner Owen Paterson claims the pro-Europe camp has an unfair advantage (Getty)

But at least four Cabinet members are expected to campaign for Britain to leave the bloc, with several more wavering over which way to jump. Eurosceptic Tories have protested that ministers are not allowed to speak out in favour of Brexit while pro-EU ministers are permitted to make the case for membership.

In his letter setting out the “wholly exceptional” rules, Mr Cameron urged ministers on both sides of the argument to “treat each other with appropriate respect and courtesy” during the campaign.

He said the usual rule of collective responsibility, allowing ministers with “long-standing and sincerely held views” to take the opposite view from him on EU membership, would be suspended once the Cabinet had discussed any agreement he had struck at Brussels.

“Until that point – when it will become clear whether a deal can be negotiated that delivers the objectives I have set out – 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 said.

Mr Cameron reminded ministers that they would have to continue to support all other government policy positions while speaking in the Commons – although they would be able to acknowledge taking a different position over the referendum.

His letter reminded them they could not speak from the back benches – a recognition that ministers who supported “Brexit” would have to make their case in media interviews and campaign meetings and not in Parliament.

Mr Cameron said it would be the “duty” of civil servants to support Mr Cameron’s position on the referendum until the “purdah” rules come into force 28 days ahead of the referendum.

But ministers who oppose the official position would be able to draw on personal help and advice from their special advisers as long as it is in line with their wishes and “in their own time”.

The former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, a leading campaigner for Brexit, said: “It is increasingly clear it will 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.”

He added: “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.”