Isabel Hardman

How David Cameron could still avoid a bitter Tory row on Europe without a free vote

How David Cameron could still avoid a bitter Tory row on Europe without a free vote
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David Cameron’s indication that his ministers will have to follow the position of the government on the EU referendum or leave the government has caused some consternation in his party. David Davis has just warned on the Today programme that the Prime Minister risks ‘turning a decent debate into a bitter argument’, while the newspapers write this up as a very risky move indeed.

Cameron told reporters covering the G7 summit in Bavaria that ‘I’ve been very clear. If you want to be part of the government, you have to take the view that we are engaged in an exercise of renegotiation, to have a referendum and that will lead to a successful outcome.’

This is also a very clear, perhaps the clearest yet, that the Prime Minister is planning to recommend a ‘Yes’ vote to staying in the EU, regardless of what he ends up getting.

And the indication he has given that a free vote is not on the cards and that if you want to campaign for ‘No’, then you will have to resign, does indeed risk rancour over Europe in a party that is never particularly pacific on the matter. It isn’t just a way of making those with a principle ‘Out’ stance feel alienated, but an opportunity for anyone who wants to get a bit of attention or cause trouble for Cameron to resign in a blaze of fury and glory.

But there is still a chance that the Tory leader may have a plan to reunite the party after the vote. He could also make clear, in private, to ministers with an ‘Out’ stance that yes, they must resign from the government, but that they will be welcomed back into the government after the referendum. There are some problems with this still, the first of which is of course that if Britain does vote to leave, Cameron will have lost a referendum, and probably won’t be in a position to start reforming a government anyway. But the second could be an understanding between those rebel ministers and Cameron that they will conduct themselves in a polite fashion during the campaign, rather than turning to personal attacks about the Prime Minister’s trustworthiness and abilities. But this is the alternative to a free vote, and is not something Cameron has yet appeared to rule out.