It is essential that David Cameron must apply the principal of ‘collective responsibility’ to his cabinet over the Brexit referendum, insisting on loyal support from every cabinet minister for his stance on Britain’s EU membership. There can be no question, as former Chancellor Nigel Lawson has suggested, of ministers being given a ‘free vote’ on this crucial issue. David Cameron is fighting hard to achieve meaningful reforms to our EU membership. Following his most recent encounter in Brussels with the other 27 EU leaders, he announced that he was making good progress towards achieving the sort of reforms that the UK needs to maintain our community membership. It would be ludicrous, having fought and won such reforms to find a number of his ministers openly campaigning for Britain’s exit from the EU. It would make the British Prime Minister appear to be both foolish and untrustworthy in the eyes of Europe’s leaders if his own cabinet cannot be seen to back him.

Some reports claim that up to eleven cabinet members would join the ‘EU Leave’ campaign, if they are given the freedom to do so by Cameron. Many of these ministers are long-standing opponents of our EU membership and well-known Eurosceptics. Some have apparently even threatened to resign from the cabinet if they are not allowed to vote for Brexit. Collective responsibility requires complete loyalty to the Prime Minister, who, after all, appointed them to their ministerial positions in the first place. He has made it clear from the start that he would campaign determinedly for Britain to retain its EU membership if, in his judgement, he won key reform concessions in Brussels. His cabinet must support him on this. They must put up or shut up. Cameron was forced into pledging to hold a referendum because of the rise of UKIP and the endless carping of Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party. The referendum will settle Britain’s place in or out of the EU once and for all. There is no room for division within the British cabinet over this issue. If some ministers refuse to accept collective responsibility they should resign or be fired.

Cabinet collective responsibility is a constitutional convention that requires members of the cabinet publicly to support all governmental decisions made in cabinet, even if they do not privately agree with them. On this, the most important political issue now facing the UK, it is of critical importance that collective responsibility is adhered to without exception. It is clear that no matter what Cameron achieves in Brussels there will be some Conservative MPs who say Britain would be ‘Better Off Out’ of the EU. These are the so-called BOO boys and girls, who made life a misery for former Tory Prime Minister John Major and are determined to do the same to David Cameron. They are so viscerally opposed to the EU that even the most radical reforms will fail to shut them up. Some are even suggesting that the imposition of cabinet collective responsibility will lead to splits in the Conservative Party, presumably alluding to potential high-level defections to UKIP. I doubt very much if there is any truth in this. Of the two Tory MPs who defected to UKIP before the last election, only one retained his seat and he is now engaged in an ugly war of attrition with UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage.

UKIP’s failure even slightly to dent Labour’s by–election victory in Oldham in early December was as big a blow to the egotistical Farage as his own failure to win a Westminster seat in the General Election. If Britain votes to remain a member of the EU in the forthcoming referendum, UKIP will be finished and Farage will become an irrelevant footnote in history. Few Conservative ministers or MPs are likely to risk their political careers by defecting to such a bunch of xenophobes. So talk of splits in the party are a red-herring and should be ignored. Cameron should crack the whip. He must tell his cabinet that when he reaches a final decision on our EU membership they are duty-bound to back him or they should pack their bags and go.

Struan Stevenson