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29 September 2014updated 21 Jul 2021 11:16am

George Osborne: the EU referendum would be a free vote for Tory backbenchers

The Chancellor says that a vote on Britain's EU membership would be unwhipped for Conservative backbench MPs.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It’s a sign of the Tories’ enduring problems when the Chancellor says something more notable on EU membership than the economy during Conservative party conference.

This morning, he told the BBC’s Today programme that a vote on Britain’s EU membership would be a “free vote” in parliament. He conceded that Tory MPs who want to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union would be free to do so, and to vote Out.

When asked whether or not Conservative backbenchers would be able to campaign for an Out vote in an EU referendum, Osborne said: “Ultimately it will be a free vote. It’s a referendum.”

This emphasis on the freedom of conscience for MPs over the EU is no coincidence. With two Tory MPs jumping ship to the anti-EU Ukip, and rumours of more to follow (the Staggers is hearing the names of Chris Kelly and Gordon Henderson), the Tory leadership is looking to keep its eurosceptic members in the fold.

However, it’s unclear whether cabinet ministers would also be allowed a free vote. In the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Community, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided to suspend collective responsibility because of his cabinet being split on the issue. Cabinet ministers were allowed to vote with their consciences and also to campaign against each other.

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David Cameron’s cabinet has its eurosceptics – the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond being a prominent example – so would this 1975 precedent mean a cabinet tearing each other apart in the event of an EU referendum?