On Saturday Education Secretary Michael Gove and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond became the first Cabinet ministers to state publicly that they would vote for Britain to leave the EU.
Shortly after the news, The Sunday Times claimed that as many as 100 MPs are expected to support a Commons motion expressing ‘regret’ that the Queen’s Speech did not include a bill legislating for a referendum on EU membership.
Pete Digger, MD of political communications at Good Relations, highlighted Nigel Lawson’s recent column for The Times backing an EU exit and UKIP’s success in the local elections as key triggers for the weekend’s events.
Pointing to a piece in the Daily Mail claiming at least seven other ministers agreed with Gove and Hammond, Digger said the issue would ‘dominate the news’ in the coming week as ministers were grilled by the media on their position.
However he said the Prime Minister, who supports EU membership and announced in January he would legislate for a referendum to be held by 2017 if he won the next election, would be wrong to pressure his Cabinet into silence.
‘He has to let the debate continue and should not intervene. The issue is being debated in the open now, and if he tries to issue an edict of "no comment" the focus will just turn on him seeking to place a gag on discussing the issue.’
Media have reported that Cameron ordered his ministers to abstain in the vote on the motion brought about by the Tory backbenchers and set to be held on Wednesday.
Digger called the move a ‘mistake’, a view echoed by Pagefield’s public affairs head Mark Gallagher.
Gallagher claimed that recent revelations Margaret Thatcher had wanted to leave the EU had also led to the EU debate coming back into focus.
He said it was one of a number of ‘waves’ of coverage that would run until the referendum itself.
Calling for a more ‘hands-on’ approach, Gallagher added this was a result of a 'tactical' error on Cameron's part.
‘Cameron’s speech on EU membership in January didn’t factor in sufficiently the level of mistrust felt by those inside and outside of Parliament about whether a referendum will actually ever be delivered.’