David Cameron should not be forced to resign if Britain votes to leave the European Union but he should offer his ministers a free vote in the upcoming in/out referendum, a Tory backbencher has said.
James Cleverly said there was a “big pragmatic argument” for ministers to be allowed to campaign for either the In or Out camps ahead of the referendum which could be called as early as this summer, and definitely before the end of 2017.
But he dismissed suggestions that the Prime Minister would have to resign in the event of a vote to leave because he has staked his future on renegotiating Britain’s membership of the EU.
Mr Cameron’s renegotiation is entering a crucial phase ahead of a key EU summit in February where a deal could be reached.
Mr Cleverly spoke after the Sunday Times reported that six Cabinet ministers think Mr Cameron would have to stand down if the UK voted to leave.
According to the newspaper, that figure would rise if the PM failed to offer Eurosceptic ministers a free vote on the issue despite Government policy favouring Britain remaining in the EU.
Tory backbenchers could force a vote of no confidence in Mr Cameron even if he wins the referendum if the party is split after the poll, while Chancellor George Osborne could also be under threat, the report also suggests.
Meanwhile, the Mail on Sunday claimed Boris Johnson could be offered a Cabinet post in a New Year reshuffle in an effort to stave off the threat of Eurosceptic ministers such as Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers walking out of the Government over the PM’s support for remaining in the EU.
But Mr Cleverly insisted that there would be no need for resignations from either Mr Cameron or his ministers if a free vote is granted and the campaign is conducted in a friendly and professional manner.
Asked if the PM should stand down if Britain votes to leave, Mr Cleverly told Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio Five Live: “I don’t see that that has to be the case at all.
“I think that the biggest thing for us, looking internally just for a moment, I think the biggest thing for the Conservative Party is that there will be Conservatives on both sides of the argument.”
Asked if ministers should be allowed to campaign for leaving the EU, Mr Cleverly said: “I think there’s a big pragmatic argument for that for no other reason than the parliamentary maths.
“There are only 300 or so MPs from which the Prime Minister can draw a government and almost 100 seats in government to fill.
“I think that will be the pragmatic option.
“I suspect he will (allow that) but I don’t have any great insights into that any more than any other backbencher would do.
“But if we conduct the campaign in a friendly, professional, tough but gallant way, I don’t see any reason why anyone at the head of either side of the argument will need to stand down irrespective of what the result will be.”