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UK ministers free to campaign either way in EU referendum
[LONDON] British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday his ministers will be allowed to campaign for or against Britain's membership in the EU at a planned referendum that could reshape the face of the 28-nation bloc.
While the move was seen as a major concession to eurosceptics in his party, Mr Cameron signalled he would not resign if the in-or-out vote goes against the government recommendations.
"Come what may I will continue to lead the government in the way I have," he said.
The news means Mr Cameron would not have to sack ministers who want to campaign to leave the European Union for breaching the convention of collective cabinet responsibility.
Mr Cameron's centre-right Conservative Party has a large eurosceptic contingent and it is thought that several high-profile ministers could join the campaign for Britain to leave the EU.
The prime minister, who travels to Germany and Hungary from Wednesday for further talks on renegotiating Britain's EU membership, says he will campaign to stay in the 28-member bloc - if he can secure the reforms he wants.
"There will be a clear government position but it will be open to individual ministers to take a different personal position while remaining part of the government," Mr Cameron told parliament's lower chamber, the House of Commons.
Officials are hopeful that a deal on Britain's renegotiation of its ties with Brussels can be agreed at a summit next month despite divisions over Mr Cameron's demands to limit benefit payments to EU migrants.
By law, Britain must hold the referendum by the end of 2017 but analysts say the vote could be held as early as the middle of this year if the renegotiation is completed in time.
Mr Cameron said he wanted a referendum campaign lasting at least three months.
While ministers would only be able to speak out after a deal is sealed, Tuesday's concession highlights some of the problems Mr Cameron could face in keeping his government together while ministers campaign against each other over the referendum.
It is thought that several eurosceptics in Cameron's cabinet could campaign for Britain to leave the EU, including Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling.
Nigel Farage, leader of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), told Sky News television that Cameron had done "the right thing".
"He may be surprised now just how many ministers come out in support of leaving," he added.
Kenneth Clarke, a Conservative former finance minister and senior pro-European, criticised the move and said Mr Cameron faced a "very difficult task" to "avoid splitting the party".
"He probably has been forced into it," he told BBC radio.
Main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mr Cameron's insistence on a "clear position" for the government while allowing ministers to campaign against it would make Britain a laughing stock.
Opposition Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: "The prime minister is failing to lead his own government, let alone the country, putting his own internal party strife above what's best for Britain."
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign which wants Britain to quit the EU, welcomed the move.
"We've had lots of useful meetings with government ministers and look forward to working with them much more closely now," he said.
But Will Straw, executive of Britain Stronger in Europe, believed the "majority" of Conservative ministers would campaign for EU membership.
Political analysts said Mr Cameron had little choice but to let his cabinet campaign according to their consciences.
"To impose collective responsibility upon ministers would have been to court disaster, a mass resignation that few governments can survive," wrote political commentator Matthew d'Ancona in The Guardian newspaper.
Opinion polls suggest the British public is finely balanced on whether to leave the EU or stay in, with a slight move towards leaving in recent months.