EU referendum: Liam Fox tells David Cameron to let ministers campaign for Brexit

Prime Minister David Cameron Makes His Speech At The Conservative Party Annual Conference
Liam Fox has said ministers should have freedom to campaign (Source: Getty)

Prime Minister David Cameron is facing fresh divisions in the Conservative party over the EU referendum, as more senior MPs call for a "free vote" for Cabinet ministers.

Earlier today, former defence secretary Liam Fox called for ministers to have the freedom to take sides in the EU referendum debate, even if they disagree with the Prime Minister.

Cameron has promised an in/out vote by the end of 2017. While he has not said whether he will campaign for Britain to remain in or leave the EU, he gave his strongest signals yet last week that he would back Britain staying in the 28-country bloc.

Fox, meanwhile, said today that he would vote in favour of Britain leaving the EU, telling the BBC's Andrew Marr that it was clear European leaders were moving towards an "ever-closer union" and that was "against the national interests" of Britain.

"For me it's now very clear what direction we should take as a country," he said.

Fox said he would "much prefer" ministers "have the freedom to campaign from within the cabinet".

"If you remember the timing of this referendum will come in 2016 or maybe 2017, we have an electoral mandate, we're a majority government in the House of Commons and we'll have to continue to work together to govern the country right up to 2020. I think that is best done by having more freedom for individual to express what is effectively a matter of conscience for them."

Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe who leads the eurosceptic Conservatives for Britain group, agreed, telling City A.M. that Cameron faces a choice between ministers being "browbeaten into supporting this flimsy deal" or a "higher-quality public debate amongst ministers free to speak their mind".

"It does seem to be very clear, if ministers don't have the freedom to speak up on issues on which they have long-held views, there will be trouble."

He added: "The more we're able to give freedom to our colleagues and the more we treat one another's views with respect and tolerance, the easier it will be for us to come together after that referendum to continue to govern the country."

Baker, a long-time eurosceptic, also said today that he expects 50 per cent of all Tory MPs are leaning toward backing Brexit.

Fox’s dramatic intervention came as the boss of a leading challenger bank became the latest City figure to endorse a Brexit, telling City A.M. yesterday that Britain’s lenders could be better off if the UK left the EU.

Paul Lynam, chief executive of Secure Trust and head of the British Bankers' Association (BBA) challenger bank panel, said: “Arguably a Brexit would put the UK in more control of its own destiny in a lot of areas, including bank regulation.”

City A.M. understands that at least two bosses of Britain’s bigger lenders have made similar statements privately in recent weeks.

Eurosceptics welcomed Lynam’s comments, with Vote Leave’s Robert Oxley telling City A.M.: “It’s clear that entrepreneurs and those willing to challenge the establishment are backing Brexit. Voters should not believe the doom-mongering by those who say something better isn’t possible.”

But Lucy Thomas from the pro-EU Britain Stronger in Europe campaign disagreed, saying: “Being inside the EU’s single market gives our financial services sector a major boost, creating jobs and growth in our economy.”

After making his case to European leaders in Brussels last week, David Cameron insisted that "good progress" had been made in discussions, despite vocal opposition to his plans to curb in-work benefits for EU migrants.

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