The battle over Britain’s future in the European Union has exploded into life after Michael Gove attacked David Cameron’s central claim that the country’s national security would be endangered by a vote to leave.
In a strongly worded statement released minutes after an emergency Cabinet meeting, Mr Gove warned that the EU’s policies were allowing terrorists to roam freely on the Continent, fuelling the rise of neo-Nazi parties and opening up historic tensions between rival European powers.
It came after Mr Cameron, addressing the country outside No 10, warned that leaving Europe was a “threat to national security”. He also confirmed the in/out referendum would take place on Thursday 23 June – firing the starting gun on a four-month campaign.
The Prime Minister was backed by Theresa May and George Osborne during the historic Cabinet meeting – the first to be called on a Saturday since 1939 – exposing a rift over national security at the heart of the Government.
Mr Gove’s intervention came on a day of fast-moving events after Mr Cameron secured his landmark EU renegotiation late on Friday night after 31 hours of talks in Brussels.
After briefing the Cabinet on his agreement for just over two hours on Saturday morning, Mr Cameron suspended collective government responsibility to allow ministers to campaign against his reforms.
Five full Cabinet ministers – John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith – immediately took advantage, leaving Downing Street by the back entrance and boarding a waiting car which took them to the Vote Leave campaign HQ.
They were joined by the employment minister Priti Patel – tipped as a future leadership contender. However, the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is refusing to reveal his position – leaving the Prime Minister to sweat until he reveals proposals to guarantee Parliament’s sovereignty over Brussels.
Mr Johnson is understood to be leaning towards backing the Leave campaign and could make a statement tonight.
During Cabinet, Mr Duncan Smith made a plea for Tory unity – admitting his own leadership had been torn apart by rows over Europe.
However, in an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday an hour after Cabinet finished, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd took a swipe at the Mr Johnson – suggesting he had a responsibility to back the remain campaign so as to maintain the capital’s position as the world’s leading financial centre.
Ms Rudd said, as London Mayor, Mr Johnson needed to consider the economic security of the capital. “I hope he’ll think about what is best for families, for consumers, for London, for businesses.”
It came as doubts emerged over Mr Cameron’s EU reform package. The IoS can reveal that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned the Prime Minister that his pledge to change the EU treaties to lock in his reforms may never happen.
A leaked diplomatic report of the Brussels talks reveals that Ms Merkel told fellow EU leaders not to be overly concerned about Mr Cameron’s demand for treaty changes because “on the question of amending the Treaties, we do not know if we ever will have a change of them”. The revelation undermines a key claim of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation.
The Prime Minister boasted that Britain would get a special exemption from ever closer union and protections for the City of London guaranteed in treaty change.
It also emerged that Mr Cameron’s success in negotiating an “emergency brake” on benefits for EU citizens – which is unlikely to come into force until mid 2017 – could lead to a spike in migration as workers attempt to move to the UK before the new rules apply.
Speaking outside No 10 at 12.10pm on Saturday, the Prime Minister insisted the deal gave Britain a “special status” in the EU and urged voters to back Britain’s continued membership. He announced that the Cabinet agreed that the Government’s official position was to recommend that Britain remain in the EU.
Mr Cameron described the choice as one of the “biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes”.
He said: “The question is, will we be safer, stronger and better off working together in a reformed Europe or out on our own?
“I believe we will be safer in a reformed Europe, because we can work with our European partners to fight cross-border crime and terrorism.”
He added: “Let me be clear. Leaving Europe would threaten our economic and our national security. Those who want to leave Europe cannot tell you if British businesses would be able to access Europe’s free trade single market or if working people’s jobs are safe, or how much prices would rise. All they are offering is risk at a time of uncertainty – a leap in the dark.” But he added: “The choice is in your hands.”
Mr Cameron’s warning about the threat to national security of pulling out of the EU was echoed by a series of senior Tory figures.
Rob Halfon, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, said he supported the “in” campaign “because of the threats of Islamism, terrorism, Syria and the emergent Russia”. Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, claimed “they would be dancing in the Kremlin if Britain left the EU”.
But Mr Gove, the Justice Secretary, insisted Britain’s national security was under threat from the EU. He said the EU had been a “failure on so many fronts”, including the euro and migration. He added: “Far from providing security in an uncertain world, the EU’s policies have become a source of instability and insecurity.
“Razor wire once more criss-crosses the Continent, historic tensions between nations such as Greece and Germany have resurfaced in ugly ways, and the EU is proving incapable of dealing with the current crises in Libya and Syria. The former head of Interpol says the EU’s internal borders policy is ‘like hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe’, and Scandinavian nations which once prided themselves on their openness are now turning in on themselves.
“All of these factors, combined with popular anger at the lack of political accountability, has encouraged extremism to the extent that far-right parties are stronger across the Continent than at any time since the 1930s.”
But speaking to The IoS, Ms Rudd dismissed his claim and said national security would be a key issue in the campaign. “That wider impact on security in an unfriendly world, where there are groups who really want to attack our values, who want to try and bomb us on the streets of London – what does the EU do for us there? I would say quite a lot.”
Ms Rudd revealed that every member of the Cabinet spoke at yesterday’s meeting. Over Murray Mints and water, Mrs May, the Home Secretary, told her colleagues that security was a paramount issue and that the UK benefited from the European Arrest Warrant to extradite wanted criminals from other member states.
Ministers spoke without notes and, largely, without pre-prepared speeches to make sure their arguments were seen as heartfelt.
Ms Rudd, whose PR supremo brother Roland is one of the main architects of the “Remain” campaign, said the meeting was respectful, with the Government trying to make sure the Tories do not risk the sort of splits over Europe that blighted John Major’s premiership in the 1990s.
She said: “It was affectionate and quite emotional really… The tone was unequivocally supportive.”
Ms Rudd also insisted that Mr Cameron retains sufficient support among even his Eurosceptic colleagues that he would not resign in the event of losing the referendum, saying, “he’s hugely respected by both sides”.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies