LONDON: UK Prime Minister David Cameron should not stifle the debate following a stormy weekend within his Conservative Party over the issue of European Union membership, communications leaders say.
On Saturday, British education secretary Michael Gove and defense secretary Philip Hammond became the first Cabinet ministers to publicly state that they would vote for Britain to leave the EU.
Shortly after the news, The Sunday Times claimed that as many as 100 Parliament members are expected to support a House of Commons motion expressing “regret” that the Queen's Speech did not a 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 as well as the UK Independence Party's recent success in 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 lawmakers were grilled by the media on their positions.
However, Cameron, 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, Digger said.
“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,” Digger said.
Media have reported that Cameron ordered his ministers to abstain in the vote on the motion brought about by Conservatives and set to be held on Wednesday.
Digger called the move a “mistake,” a view echoed by Pagefield's public affairs head Mark Gallagher.
Recent revelations that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had wanted to leave the EU has also brought the membership debate back into focus, Gallagher said. The current discussion is one of a number of “waves” of coverage that will run until the referendum itself, he added.
Calling for a more “hands-on” approach, Gallagher said 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,” he said.
This story originally appeared on the website of PRWeek UK, the sister publication of PRWeek at Haymarket Media.