Michael Gove and at least five other cabinet ministers are preparing to break ranks and defy David Cameron by arguing for Brexit in the European Union membership referendum promised by the Prime Minister.
One or more had hoped to address a major anti-EU rally in London on Friday night, but they were forced to hold their peace when Mr Cameron’s EU renegotiation summit dragged on into a second day.
Mr Gove’s expected decision to support the Out campaign will be a bitter blow to Downing Street as he is among the Prime Minister’s closest confidants and a family friend. Mr Cameron has made huge efforts to persuade the Justice Secretary to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU based on a reformed relationship between London and Brussels.
But sources close to Mr Cameron said that Mr Gove had decided with a “heavy heart” he could not back the Prime Minister on the issue. The Spectator reported that Mr Cameron’s allies seem “pretty much resigned to losing Michael Gove to the Out campaign once the deal is done”.
Mr Gove has been torn between his loyalty to the Prime Minister and his long-standing support for Britain pulling out of the bloc.
The Justice Secretary’s defection to the Brexit campaign would boost its credibility – although it is understood he would take a relatively low profile – and could encourage other wavering ministers to follow suit.
A spokesman for him said: “Michael’s position has not changed – he supports the Prime Minister’s strategy to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union. As he has said before, it would be premature for anyone to make a judgement before the deal is concluded. Like the Prime Minister, he has not ruled anything out.”
Mr Cameron cancelled a cabinet meeting provisionally scheduled for Friday afternoon at which he had hoped to report back on a deal secured in the Brussels talks. That would have marked the point at which collective responsibility would have been suspended and ministers could have gone public over their support for Brexit.
A prominent role will be played in the Out campaign by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who is a long-term advocate of withdrawal from the EU.
He is among the several cabinet members who have complained to Mr Cameron over the collective gag placed on Eurosceptic ministers ahead of the referendum campaign.
The Commons Leader, Chris Grayling, and the employment minister, Priti Patel, look certain to join the campaign, as well as John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, and Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary.
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is still keeping the Prime Minister guessing over his intentions, although he has promised to set out his position “with deafening éclat” if Mr Cameron clinches a deal in Brussels.
Speakers at the Grassroots Out rally included the Ukip leader Nigel Farage, the senior Conservative MPs Sir Bill Cash and David Davis, Labour’s Kate Hoey and the economist Ruth Lea.
Ahead of the rally Mr Davis said: “This whole long drawn-out renegotiation process has highlighted the EU’s undemocratic institutional arrogance. It shows the utter disregard Brussels has for member states. It is the perfect example of how Britain is ruled by the EU.”
After 24 hours of talks in Brussels, Mr Cameron made little progress in thrashing out a compromise on his reform demands.
Eastern European countries stood firm in their position that any deal should not allow Britain to restrict child benefits to migrant workers immediately, calling for the plan to be phased in over 16 years.
At the same time they pressed for the emergency brake for in-work benefits to be limited to an initial period of two years, with tough tests for any extensions. Mr Cameron is understood to have made clear that this would be unacceptable during a series of tense and sleep-deprived bilateral meetings throughout the day.
A full European Council meeting had been scheduled to rubber-stamp the plan at 11am on Friday, but what had been billed as an “English breakfast” soon turned into an “English lunch” and finally an “English dinner” as a deal proved elusive.
UK news in pictures
UK news in pictures
1/18 23 June 2017
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a news conference at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 23, 2017
2/18 22 June 2017
Cosplay fans (L-R) George Massingham, Abbey Forbes and Karolina Goralik travel by tube dressed in Harry Potter themed costumes, after a visit to one the literary franchise's movie filming locations at Leadenhall Market in London, Britain
3/18 22 June 2017
Racegoers cheer on their horse on Ladies Day at the Royal Ascot horse racing meet, in Ascot, west of London
4/18 21 June 2017
A reveller walks among the tipi tents at the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, South West England
5/18 20 June 2017
A police officer lays some flowers passed over by a member of the public, close to Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, after one man died and eight people were taken to hospital and a person arrested after a rental van struck pedestrian
The Borough Market bell is seen in Borough Market in central London following its re-opening after the June 3 terror attack
Two women embrace in Borough Market, which officially re-opens today following the recent attack, in central London
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan attends the re-opening of Borough market in central London following the June 3 terror attack
People walk through Borough Market in central London following its re-opening after the June 3 terror attack
News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch, with one of his daughters, visit Borough Market, which officially re-opened today following the recent attack
A woman reacts in front of a wall of messages in Borough Market, which officially re-opened today following the recent attack, in central London
Vivenne Westwood walks the runway at the Vivenne Westwood show during the London Fashion Week Men's June 2017 collections
Millwall fan and London Bridge hero Roy Larner on 'Good Morning Britain'
Richard Arnold, Roy Larner, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on 'Good Morning Britain'
15/18 11 June 2017
England players celebrate after defeating Venezuela 1-0 to win the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea 2017 at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea
16/18 11 June 2017
England players celebrate with the trophy after the final match of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2017 between Venezuela and England at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, South Korea
17/18 11 June 2017
Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee celebrates winning the Elite Men Columbia Threadneedle World Triathlon Leeds
Danny Lawson/PA Wire
18/18 11 June 2017
Two men drink beer outside the Southwark Tavern which reopened for business today next to an entrance to Borough Market which remains closed in London
Mr Cameron, who only left the Council building for three hours’ sleep at 5am, returned for another session including talks with the French, Italians, Poles, Czechs and Germans in an attempt to find a compromise. By early evening the Council President Donald Tusk decided to reconvene the whole Council despite no agreed deal being on the table in an attempt to use “peer pressure” to force a compromise.
British diplomats said they were ready to fight their corner to resist the deal being watered down.
While no threat was made to walk away, a Downing Street source made clear Mr Cameron was prepared to leave if he came under too much pressure to compromise. “You have to remember that we don’t have to hold the referendum until 2017,” they said.Reuse content