Kenneth Clarke insisted most Tory ministers wanted Britain to remain in the European Union as he hit out at “eccentric” and “strident” Eurosceptic backenchers.
The veteran Cabinet minister’s comments came 24 hours after David Cameron set out the seven major changes he wants as part of his drive to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership.
Speaking to a group of Europhile Conservatives, Mr Clarke argued that the Prime Minister could achieve his shopping-list through “political agreement” rather than through changes to EU treaties.
He also dismissed suggestions that the majority of Tory MPs were now anti-European.
“The party depends for its support on the Conservative mainstream and the more orthodox backbenchers,” he said.
“The price of orthodoxy is being less newsworthy than some of my more strident and even – dare I say – occasionally eccentric colleagues who I have seen over the years become household names for a year or two while they last.”
Mr Clarke said: “It’s certainly the case that in the ministerial ranks of the Conservative Party, the pro-EU sentiment is in the majority.”
He admitted that he and the Police Minister Damian Green, who also addressed the meeting, might be “outliers”, but added: “We are not by far the only ones inside and outside the Cabinet.”
Mr Green warned MPs that the public would vote to leave the union if pro-EU Tories failed to speak out.