Tory Cabinet Minister Chris Graying condemned the current terms of the European Union as “disastrous” for Britain on Thursday, warning that closer ties between Brussels and EU member states is a “path that the UK will not and should not follow."
Writing in The Telegraph, the Commons leader and prominent eurosceptic stopped short of saying Britain should leave the EU, but detailed why he thought the current deal requires change.
David Cameron revealed last week that government ministers would be allowed to campaign for either side of the debate ahead of the EU referendum, likely to be held this summer.
However, the PM wrote a minute earlier this week demanding ministers do not speak out in favour of a brexit until after the renegotiation process, which Cameron hopes to conclude at the EU Summit in February.
Grayling’s carefully worded article adhered to that demand, noting that Cameron is “right to seek new terms for our membership.”
"I am someone who believes that simply staying in the EU with our current terms of membership unchanged would be disastrous for Britain,” the MP wrote. “That's why I have always believed that it is imperative that his renegotiation takes place and delivers as much potential change as possible. It is in the interests of all eurosceptics and of our country."
A senior source told PA Number 10 was "completely relaxed" about the content of Grayling's article. Should the PM secure a new deal for the UK in Brussels next month, he will recommend a vote to stay in the EU.
In the article, Grayling wrote that speculation over Cameron’s future if he lost the referendum “is simply wrong” and “no more logical than suggesting that a vote to remain would mean all eurosceptics had to quit."
Even if Cameron fails to secure the reforms, William Hague said it was unlikely the PM would recommend a vote to leave the union.
Speaking to ITV News, the former foreign secretary said: "It would make a huge difference to all of us if the PM came back and said these negotiations have all failed and I'm not recommending staying in the EU. Many of us would have to re-evaluate our positions. I don't think that will happen.”
“On the assumption that there is a reasonable success and negotiations now taking place, and the PM says we should stay in the EU, then that is the way I would go,” he added.
"I am a long-standing critic of the EU but you have to think in 2016, a time of great economic and security and other challenges for the Western world, is it actually the right thing for the United Kingdom to leave?”
Hague also pointed out that Scottish nationalists would push for a second referendum should Britain vote to leave the EU.
The main challenge for Cameron is convincing his EU counterparts to allow Britain block migrants claiming in-work benefits in the UK until they have been in the country for four years.
Hague conceded that alternatives would probably have to be considered. "I'm sure if the proposal on migration, on welfare benefits, isn't acceptable to other countries in the EU, there has to be another discussion about alternative proposals,” he said.
Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who is to lead Labour's ‘yes’ campaign for the referendum, gave a strong defence of Britain’s continued membership on Newsnight on Wednesday, calling the renegotiation a “sideshow” that was more about the “future of the Conservative Party than the future of the country."