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|UK's Cameron tells ministers: Back me on EU referendum or quit
by Andrew Osborn
KRUEN, Germany (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to quell fresh signs of rebellion in his Conservative Party over Europe, warning ministers they will have to back his European Union strategy or leave his government.
Speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Germany of the Group of Seven Industrial nations (G7), Cameron, who has pledged to renegotiate Britain's EU ties before offering a membership referendum, signalled he would not tolerate dissent.
"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," he told reporters, when asked whether he would allow ministers to vote according to their conscience
"Everyone in government has signed up to the programme set out in the Conservative manifesto."
Cameron, who has promised to hold the EU referendum by the end of 2017, says he is confident he can get a deal that will allow him to recommend Britons vote to stay in the 28-nation bloc, a club they have belonged to since 1973.
He is vulnerable however, commanding a mere 12-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. A fully-fledged rebellion over Europe among his own lawmakers could derail his wider lawmaking agenda and cast a cloud over his second term in office.
Cameron spoke out after a group of over 50 of his own lawmakers said they were prepared to join a campaign backing a British EU exit, known as a 'Brexit,' unless he achieved radical changes in the bloc. It was the first sign of Eurosceptic revolt since he was re-elected last month.
One member of that group, which has appealed to the prime minister to let ministers campaign as they see fit ahead of the referendum, suggested up to nine of Cameron's ministers could vote to leave the EU. That could not be independently confirmed.
Senior Conservative lawmaker David Davis said Cameron's stance on ministers was "unwise".
"There is a risk what we may end up doing is turning a decent debate into a bitter argument," Davis told BBC Radio, saying until recently most of the party had been willing to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt over his renegotiation efforts.
"This doesn’t show a great deal of confidence in the outcome of those negotiations that he has to say now my way or the high way, stay and obey the line or leave," said Davis.
Eurosceptic Conservative lawmakers feel Cameron has framed the referendum question in way a that favours a vote to stay and are angry he has decided not to impose restrictions on government campaign activity in the run-up to the vote.
In another move likely to rile Eurosceptics, The Times reported on Monday that campaign spending limits are to be increased by 40 percent for the referendum, raising fears among those planning to campaign for exit that they will be outspent.
Some Eurosceptics have even suggested they feel so strongly they may try to amend a law going through parliament to enable the referendum to take place.
But Cameron, whose reform proposals have so far had a mixed reception from other EU leaders, made clear he would not put up with any rebellion, especially among his own ministers.
"If I can get a position where Britain would be better off in a reformed Europe, then obviously that's not something the government is neutral about," he said. "It's not a sort of, ‘On the one hand ...on the other hand,’ approach."
(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London, Editing by Paul Taylor)
EU referendum: David Cameron clarifies his clarification
Prime minister says comments on collective responsibility of ministers to support government were misinterpreted
David Cameron’s approach to the EU referendum was in danger of slipping from confusion to farce when he clarified his position by saying he had not yet decided if ministers will be free to campaign as they wish.
But the prime minister insisted the government will have a view on the outcome of any negotiations on the terms of British membership and will not be a bystander when the referendum campaign is in full swing.
Cameron had been widely reported as planning to impose collective ministerial responsibility during the campaign following a briefing he gave to reporters at the G7 on Sunday. But the prime minister later said he had been misinterpreted, and blamed reporters accompanying him at the summit in Bavaria for misunderstanding him.
His initial remarks on Sunday caused some surprise in Westminster where at least one member of the cabinet said in private that he had made a mistake which was bound to be corrected.
But the government initially appeared to see no need for a clarification. James Wharton, the junior communities minister who sought to introduce a private member’s bill in the last parliament for an EU referendum, was dispatched onto the airwaves on Monday morning to defend the prime minister.
A few hours later, at the G7 summit, Cameron said he had been misinterpreted as he explained that collective ministerial responsibility only applied to the current stage of the renegotiations.
No decision had been made on whether ministers would be free to make the case to stay in or leave during the referendum campaign. He said ministers were currently required, as part of being in government, to expect a successful outcome to EU negotiations.
Cameron’s press conference at the end of the summit was dominated by questions on his approach to ministerial responsibility during the referendum campaign. He will be frustrated that his first appearance on the world stage since his re-election largely involved answering questions on how he is to prevent his party fracturing on whether the UK should stay in the EU.
The prime minister said he only realised his remarks had been misinterpreted when he read the newspapers on Monday morning. His officials denied he had been forced into a hasty U-turn by an angry reaction to the newspaper reports in London from senior Conservative figures such as Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip, and David Davis, the prominent rightwing backbencher.
Cameron insisted: “I was clearly referring to a process of renegotiation. I have always said what I want is an outcome for Britain that keeps us in a reformed EU, but I have also said that we do not yet know the outcome of these negotiations, which is why I have always said ‘I rule nothing out, and therefore it is wrong to answer hypothetical questions’. We are going to have to take this stage by stage and step by step.”
He continued: “What I said yesterday is that if you want to be part of the government you have to take the view that we are engaged in a renegotiation to have a referendum that will lead to a successful outcome.”
However Downing Street, by its normal standards, had been slow to jump on the now dismissed overnight reports, and also seemed to have allowed Wharton to appear on the BBC to say Cameron was right to assert that ministerial collective responsibility would apply in a referendum.
Wharton, believing he was following the government line, said anyone serving in the government would have to resign if they wanted to oppose the official position on a referendum vote. “That is, fundamentally, what that means,” Wharton said.
It is rare for a minister to be put up for a flagship programme such as Today on BBC Radio 4 unless the minister has been given and understands the government line on an issue.
There was confusion at Westminster at how the prime minister had allowed mixed messages to emerge from the G7 summit. One group thought that No 10 had decided to assert its authority after the launch of a new group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, Conservatives for Britain, whose central demand for parliament to be given a veto over EU legislation was rejected out of hand by ministers.
Others suggested that Cameron, who was distracted at the G7 summit, may have been slow to appreciate the reporting of his remarks on Sunday.
Until Cameron gave the new interpretation of his remarks, the issue of collective responsibility applying to any renegotiation of the UK’s position in the EU had not been thought to arise since no minister was likely to object in principle to such a renegotiation.
Cameron added: “I don’t know the outcome of the negotiations. I hope and I believe the outcome will be Britain with a better place in the EU dealing with our problems, and therefore I will be able to recommend Britain will be able to stay in a reformed EU.
“That is the aim, that is what I want to achieve, and I am confident of achieving it. I have said many times I do not know the outcome of the negotiations and if I don’t achieve what I want I rule nothing out.”
He then seemed to assert the government will have a collective view, even if the decision on ministerial freedom during the campaign is unresolved. He said: “I don’t believe the government is a bystander in this. The government will have a clear view. The view I want to get us to is a successful reform of the EU and being able to recommend Britain should stay in.”
Cameron is to hold further bilateral meetings in the sidelines of an EU summit on Wednesday, and he is also to scheduled to meet the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, in the coming weeks.
David Cameron prepared to break with Europe on human rights
Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent
‘Nuclear option’ on table if Strasbourg rejects UK plan as prime minister seeks right to veto European court of human rights judgments
David Cameron is to keep open the “nuclear option” of withdrawing from the European convention on human rights.
The prime minister is prepared to break with the convention, drawn up by British lawyers in the wake of the second world war, if the Strasbourg-based court refuses to accept reforms that are designed to break the link with the European court of human rights.
The Guardian understands that the prime minister still sees merit in a proposal, outlined last year by the then justice secretary Chris Grayling, to withdraw from the European convention if parliament failed to secure the right to veto judgments from the court.
Cameron wants to keep the Grayling option in reserve, to be deployed at a later date if Strasbourg baulks at government plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and assert the supremacy of the UK’s supreme court over Strasbourg in the second half of the parliament.
The move, which is designed to ensure the UK’s highest court remains the “ultimate arbiter of human rights”, is to be delayed until after the referendum on Britain’s EU membership which is due to take place by the end of 2017.
The prime minister, who has been told that he currently does not have the numbers on the Tory benches for his changes, believes he would overly complicate his task if he sought to change Britain’s human rights laws at the same time as renegotiating the terms of Britain’s EU membership. The convention is not part of the EU, although many Eurosceptics regard the EU and the 47-strong council of Europe human rights watchdog, which oversees the ECHR, with equal suspicion.
The delicate challenge faced by the prime minister on his EU renegotiations was highlighted when Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, said Cameron’s referendum was designed to “dock” the UK permanently in the EU. In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Juncker said: “Brexit is also a question that does not arise, it is not what the British are seeking. Cameron wants to dock his country permanently to Europe.”
The remarks by Juncker will fuel fears among Eurosceptics that the prime minister is determined to keep Britain in the EU regardless of the outcome of his negotiations with his fellow leaders.
Cameron sought to show that he will act in an even-handed way when he invited two of the strongest Eurosceptics on the frontbench to sit on a new cabinet committee that will oversee the EU negotiations. Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, and Sajid Javid, the business secretary, will be two of eight cabinet ministers on the committee that will also be attended by the Europe minister David Lidington.
The committee will examine the legal advice to ministers that one of the prime minister’s key demands – imposing a four-year ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits – will need to be underpinned by treaty change. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, told the prime minister last week that treaty change would not be impossible.
But Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, who is a Merkel ally, said it was unrealistic to envisage revising the Lisbon treaty in time for UK referendum.
The prime minister is adamant that he will succeed in his EU negotiations. Downing Street would then press ahead with scrapping the Human Rights Act after the EU referendum following a consultation that will be launched by Michael Gove, the new justice secretary, by this autumn.
In the first stage, Gove would deliver two goals outlined in the Conservative general election manifesto: scrapping the act and ensuring that the UK supreme court would have the ultimate say over human rights in the UK.
Downing Street clarified No 10’s thinking amid reports that Cameron had ruled out a UK withdrawal from the European convention on human rights. The prime minister’s spokeswoman said the government would scrap the act, break the link between the ECHR and the UK and make the “supreme court in the UK the ultimate arbiter of human rights in the UK”.
Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, said that withdrawing from the convention was not on the table. He told MPs: “That is not the proposal – the proposal is to ensure that our obligations in respect of compliance with the human rights agenda are overseen by judges in this country in the context of what is happening in this country. The justice secretary is looking now at how best to deliver that in a way that is acceptable to the British people and compliant with our obligations under international law.”
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