EU Referendum

EU referendum: Michael Howard says ministers should have free vote

Michael Howard Image copyright PA
Image caption Former Conservative leader Michael Howard is calling for ministers to be given a free vote on the EU

Government ministers should be given a free vote on whether to remain in the European Union, former Conservative leader Michael Howard has said.

He told the BBC that both sides of the argument had to be treated with respect and ministers should be allowed to campaign for an EU exit if they wanted.

David Cameron presented his bid to reform the EU at the European Council summit earlier this month.

No 10 says no decision on a free vote will be made until negotiations finish.

This is likely to be in February.

Mr Cameron wants to get a new deal for the UK before putting its membership to a referendum, which has been promised by the end of 2017.

When Lord Howard led the Conservative Party into the 2005 election, he also proposed a renegotiation of the UK's relationship with Brussels.

He said that if the current party leader's efforts failed to satisfy some of his cabinet colleagues, then he should allow them to vote with their consciences.

'Difficult issue'

He told Radio 4's The World This Weekend that collective responsibility should hold while talks continued, but once the referendum was called there should be a free vote.

Lord Howard said: "It's not of course a question for now.

"For now cabinet ministers are too busy running their departments and they shouldn't have time to campaign one way or another on the referendum.

"But when it comes to the campaign, if there are cabinet ministers who feel strongly that we should vote to leave the European Union, they should certainly be allowed to do so without losing their seat."

He said he recognised that Europe was a difficult issue for the Conservative Party.

But he said he disagreed with another former leader - Sir John Major - who called for collective responsibility to be maintained throughout the referendum campaign.

You can hear the interview with Lord Howard on The World This Weekend at 13:00 GMT on Sunday.

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