David Cameron tried to head off a mounting Tory Eurosceptic backlash today by blaming the media for the chaos and confusion over his EU referendum policy.
Speaking at the G7 summit in Germany, the Prime Minister said that there had been 'misinterpretation' of his remarks suggesting ministers would have to resign if they wanted to campaign for Britain's exit from the EU.
In an extraordinary press conference, Mr Cameron said that he couldn't sometimes remember what his previous line on the issue had been because the BBC's Andrew Marr had interrupted him so often.
Pleading with reporters to 'take this stage by stage, step by step', he refused to speculate on what would happen to ministers who want to join a 'No' campaign if he failed to get what they wanted from Brussels.
Mr Cameron had sparked Tory backbench anger last night when he declared ' 'if you want to be part of the government' ministers would have to share his view that the changes would lead to a 'Yes' vote in the 2017 referendum.
But today he insisted that "I was clearly referring to the process of renegotiation" rather than what would happen at the end of the process.
"I have always said what I want is an outcome for Britain that keeps us in a reformed EU. But I have also said we don’t know the outcome of these negotiations, which is why I have always said I rule nothing out.
Therefore it would be wrong to answer hypothetical questions. I know that can be frustrating. I know you want to jump to the end of the process and have all the questions answered now about the end of that process. That is not going to be possible. You are going to have to take this stage by stage, step by step and you will get the answers."
Mr Cameron even suggested that his party was right behind him, despite a backlash from senor Conservatives such as David Davis, Andrew Mitchell and backbench 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady.
"There's real unity behind the renegotiate and referendum strategy, which is right for the country, which is right for the country," he claimed.
As his G7 press conference was dominated by the issue, rather than other topics like defence or climate change, Mr Cameron even pleaded with the media to check the intention of his quotes.
"If you're not certain about something I said....ask. And we'll happily make it clear."
He said that he had said nothing new last night and had just repeated what he'd told Andrew Marr in January. Asked by Marr if he'd allow a free vote on a referendum, he replied at the time: "No, I've set that out very clearly."
Journalists reacted with scepticism at Mr Cameron's latest explanation, with even the BBC's Deputy Political Editor James Landale pointing to the weakness in the current position.
I am reminded of the words of the former White House adviser, Karl Rove: "If you are explaining, you're losing". #G7Summit— James Landale (@BBCJLandale) June 8, 2015
A Labour source said that "David Cameron seems to be making a bad situation worse. They are all over the place."
Downing Street tried to embark on a damage-limitation exercise after several newspapers today splashed their front pages with stories that he had threatened to sack ministers who disagreed with staying in the EU.
Mr Cameron said that he had decided to clarify the position after 'woke up' and read the newspapers. However, he refused to say why junior minister had been sent out this morning to defend the line that ministers had to stick to a collective view.
The Prime Minister faced accusations that he was being buffeted about by his backbenchers over Europe just like John Major. But put to him today that this was 'the 1990s all over again', he replied: '"I don't think that at all".
And in a sign that the row will continue, within minutes of the latest climbdown by No.10, Mr Davis was still unhappy.
He told The Huffington Post UK: "I think there needs to be a decision and a decision pretty quickly. At the moment, it's beginning to look as though the Government is trying to stack the deck in one direction.
"The British public will not be taken in by that. The Irish, French and others all reacted against their governments trying to sway their referendums.
"David Cameron could say today that ministers will be, once the renegotiation is over, allowed to put their own views."
The confusion over the Government's position came as a new poll for ComRes and the Daily Mail found that 51% of Britons say they would vote to stay in the EU if there were a referendum tomorrow, while a third 33% would vote to leave.
The Yes vote was even higher using the referendum question wording proposed by the Conservative government last week. When asked, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”, 58% say Yes, compared to 31% who say No.
Cameron originally said on Sunday: "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.
"Everyone in government has signed up to the programme set out in the Conservative manifesto."
Cameron's latest comments come after US President Barack Obama made a very public intervention in the debate by declaring that America was "looking forward" to the United Kingdom remaining part of the EU.
He gave his strongest indication yet that Washington wants a Yes vote in the referendum on Britain's membership of the EU as he met the Prime Minister for talks in the margins of the G7 summit of world leaders in Schloss Elmau, Germany.
But 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady, who speaks up for backbenchers, warned the Prime Minister that he had to take into account 'the wider question of achieving effective party management' over the In-Out referendum.
"In terms of the referendum and certainly the process of healing that needs to take place after a big debate of that sort, I think it’s easier the more space people be given to express their honest deeply held convictions," he told Total Politics.
James Wharton, a Communities and Local Government minister, rebutted Davis's comments, insisting it was a "long-established principle" that MPs would have to resign from the top table if they wanted to oppose the Prime Minister during the EU referendum campaign.
“On big issues like this – we saw it recently on the Scottish referendum – the Government itself takes a position. We have a long-established principle of collective responsibility," he said on Monday.
"If the Government is taking a government position, if collective responsibility is applied, if you don’t want to support that position you have to leave. You are then free to campaign for whatever you want, to vote for whoever you want.
Mr Mitchell, who along with Mr Davis was a whip in the John Major years, told the Guardian that the latest row risked ripping the Tory party apart.
"My strong advice to the prime minister would be to let ministers campaign and vote as their conscience and their convictions dictate. Not to do so will put too much pressure on the parliamentary party and the lid could blow off.
"Having been through the ghastly experience of the Maastricht era, 1992-95, when the Conservative government whips’ office kept the show on the road, I bear the painful marks of that era."
At least 50 Tory MPs, including former Cabinet ministers Owen Paterson and John Redwood, on Sunday signed up to the newly-formed Conservatives for Britain (CfB) to keep the pressure on ahead on the popular vote.
The group's Westminster chairman, Conservative Steve Baker, said there were "dozens" of Tory MPs who would vote to quit the EU now and would not settle for anything less than "fundamental change".
Newly knighted Sir Eric Pickles, re-elected as an MP in May but removed from the Communities Secretary brief, warned against dissent among his colleagues, commenting on Monday: "Europe: A divided cabinet in opposition is an embarrassment, in government it is fatal."
Europe: A divided cabinet in opposition is an embarrassment, in government it is fatal— Sir Eric Pickles (@EricPickles) June 8, 2015
But newly elected Tory MP Tom Pursglove spoke for many Eurosceptics.
Philip Hammond is one of six Cabinet members identified by the Telegraph as potential 'Brexit' campaigners, the others including Iain Duncan Smith, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Michael Fallon and Boris Johnson.
Of the top ranking ministers, the Eurosceptic and former Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith is thought to be the most likely to quit the Government in favour of being able to call for a 'no' vote in the upcoming referendum. Our executive editor for Politics, Paul Waugh, has more.