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An EU referendum: What do Conservative Cabinet members think? And what (if anything) will they do?

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2012-09-29 at 07.36.41Tim Montgomerie wrote yesterday about David Cameron's view of EU renegotiation and a referendum.  The sum of his view is that the Prime Minister wants to keep his options open.  I'm sure that this is right.

I have written previously about the view of Conservative MPs and members on both.  The sum of what I wrote is that they want renegotiation - or to leave outright - and a referendum, and that Britain is inching nearer one.  Needless to say, I think this is right, too.

But we may both have missed a trick.  Put aside for a moment what the Prime Minister or his backbenchers think, and ask: what do Tory members of the Cabinet want?

This matters (or at least has the potential to matter).  A concerted Cabinet push for, say, a renegotiation package, plus a referendum pledge, in the next manifesto might leave Mr Cameron with no alternative but to concede one - especially given the views of the wider party.

It won't happen, I hear you say.  And you may well be right.  After all, the Prime Minister has a markedly loyalist Cabinet.  More so than John Major, or the early Margaret Thatcher.

Indeed, he leads the most united Conservative Cabinet since Edward Heath's.  I can't remember reading reports of a Cabinet revolt during this Parliament.  This has much to do with the way the Cabinet has been sidelined as a political forum: instead, Mr Cameron has his seven wise men.

None the less, there have been Cabinet rumblings over Europe. It goes almost without saying that Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, the right's leading men round the table, have views.

Mr Paterson broke his cover by giving an interview to the Spectator in which he pushed his pro-referendum stance.  But Euro-scepticism ranges wider in Cabinet - for example, Justine Greening has warned against trying to prop up the Euro.

Above all, George Osborne was exerting discreet pro-referendum pressure earlier this year.  It's worth recalling what a source "intimately involved in Tory electoral strategy" told the Spectator's James Forsyth: a referendum manifesto pledge, said this person, is "basically a certainty".

The Chancellor will of course be looking over his shoulder at pro-referendum Boris Johnson.  As the next election approaches, we need to know what other Cabinet members think.

What's the view of Philip Hammond, that cautious member of the "Gang of Seven" (and strong supporter of the single market)?  What does Eric Pickles think?  What does Michael Gove, who has views on so many matters outside his brief, have to say?  And so on.

I have a suggestion.  Party conference is coming.  There will be no shortage of fringe meetings at which Cabinet members will be present.  Activists could always try asking the question...


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