Would Cameron allow Tory cabinet ministers to vote for EU withdrawal?

Faced with a split party, Cameron could learn from Harold Wilson and suspend collective cabinet responsibility for the referendum campaign.

Britain would not "collapse" if it left the EU, David Cameron declared in his interview on the Today programme this morning. It was a concession to those in his cabinet who believe that the UK should make it clear that it is prepared to withdraw if it fails to secure significantly changed terms of membership. One of those ministers, Eric Pickles, told Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics last night: "If it's in our firm national interest that we should remain in the EU – and I sincerely hope that is the case – then we should stay. But we shouldn't stay at any price." Michael Gove has similarly argued that Britain must threaten to leave the EU in order to achieve a successful renegotiation.

The danger for Cameron (who remains a genuine supporter of British membership) is that unless he is able to repatriate substantial powers from Brussels, some cabinet ministers will conclude that EU membership is no longer in Britain's interests. In this week's Spectator, James Forsyth reported that there are "at least nine Cabinet members" who would be inclined to vote "out" in a referendum if Cameron only proves able to secure minor concessions such as the exemption of the NHS from the Working Time Directive and restrictions on immigration from the EU. Confronted by what Forsyth says would be the biggest Conservative split since the repeal of the Corn Laws, how could Cameron respond?

It is worth recalling how the last (and only) government to hold an EU referendum - Harold Wilson's Labour administration in 1975 - dealt with a comparable problem. With europhiles like Roy Jenkins on one side and eurosceptics like Tony Benn on the other, Wilson took the unprecedented step of suspending collective cabinet responsibility in order to allow his ministers to support either side in the campaign. Seven Labour cabinet ministers - Benn, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, William Ross, Peter Shore John Silkin, Eric Varley - went on to unsuccessfully argue for withdrawal from the EEC (the vote was 67-33 in favour of membership).

As I wrote earlier, it is wrong to assume that a referendum is inevitable when Cameron's strategy is entirely dependent on a Conservative majority at the next election (an outcome that looks increasingly unlikely). But on the assumption that one does take place, the most elegant way for Cameron to respond to a split party may be to invoke the Wilson precedent.

Iain Duncan Smith, who voted against the Maastricht Treaty that created the EU, is one cabinet minister likely to favour withdrawal. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.