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David Cameron, the British prime minister, went before his parliament on Tuesday to report on last month’s EU summit, where leaders for the first time debated his request for a renegotiated relationship with Brussels ahead of an in-out referendum at home. During the appearance, he dropped a bit of a bombshell: his ministers will be allowed to campaign for Brexit even if his government recommends staying inside the EU. “It’s never been my intention to strong-arm people into a position they don’t believe in,” he told the House of Commons.
That sets up the prospect of Mr Cameron, widely expected to campaign for membership once he reaches a renegotiation deal at February’s EU summit, on the opposite side of such government luminaries as Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary who was once Tory leader himself.
Our Brexit watcher in the FT’s Brussels bureau, Alex Barker, says that while the decision raised eyebrows even within his own party – and may lead many in Brussels to wonder what happened to the sacred British convention of a cabinet’s collective responsibility – there may not have been much else Mr Cameron could have done. Here’s Alex’s take on how Mr Cameron is tackling what may be his hardest Brexit task yet, managing his own party:
For some in Brussels, allowing British cabinet ministers to campaign against their government on such an existential question as EU membership will be bemusing, to say the least. Michael Heseltine, the europhile former cabinet minister, once said Cameron would be a “global laughing stock” if he lifted collective responsibility for the cabinet. Ken Clarke, another of the Tory party’s rare pro-Europeans, said it was a sign of the extraordinary challenge Mr Cameron faces in avoiding “splitting the part” as the referendum campaign revs up.