Conservatives at war over EU referendum proposals

DAVID Cameron is facing a Tory crisis over Europe after two leading Conservative ministers yesterday declared they would vote for the UK to leave the EU if a referendum was held tomorrow.

Education secretary Michael Gove and defence secretary Philip Hammond said they would be willing to leave the organisation – but insisted their preferred option is renegotiation of Britain’s treaty with the 27-member bloc.

The pair, who are key allies of the Prime Minister, are the first cabinet ministers to publicly make such a stance. Over the last week a string of former chancellors have come out against continued membership of the bloc.

“I am not happy with our position in the European Union but my preference is for a change in Britain’s relationship with the European Union,” Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

Hammond echoed these comments, saying that if it were a straight choice between the existing situation and an exit, he would choose the latter.

Their interventions come ahead of an unprecedented attempt by Tory backbenchers to amend their own government’s Queen’s Speech. Tory ministers have been told to abstain from the vote – expected to be held on Wednesday – which notes regret at the absence of an EU referendum bill from the legislative agenda.

Downing Street insists it is relaxed about the backbench rebellion and has taken the unusual step of allowing low-level members of the government a free vote on the matter.

Cameron has promised he will hold an in/out referendum if the Conservatives win a majority at the 2015 general election. But with this looking increasingly unlikely and Tory MPs nervously eyeing the rise of Ukip, his party is pushing for swift action.

Meanwhile the deep cabinet split over childcare reforms spilled into the open, with Gove claiming Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is only blocking the policy in order to please party loyalists and see off a Lib Dem leadership challenge from business secretary Vince Cable.

Gove said Clegg was “showing a bit of leg” by threatening to veto plans to reduce childcare costs by increasing the number of children who can be looked after by one childminder.