CABINET ministers are among private backers of a 110-strong group of Tory MPs preparing for the possibility of Britain voting to leave the European Union, one of its highest-profile members has indicated.
Eurosceptic former environment secretary Owen Paterson said there “will be support” from senior figures for the growing Conservatives for Britain initiative which says it backs the Prime Minister David Cameron’s renegotiation but is drawing up plans for if he fails to secure sufficient change.
And he signalled it is ready to flex its muscle in the House of Commons if ministers press ahead with proposals to scrap the usual “purdah” restrictions governing the use of the Whitehall and Brussels machine in the “short campaign” in the run-up to the referendum.
As Mr Cameron prepares to meet more EU leaders this week to bolster support for his effort to recast the UK’s relationship with the EU, party grandee Lord Heseltine urged MPs not to make his job harder by agitating in public.
But Mr Paterson insisted the group is “beefing up” his chances of success by demonstrating the level of concern.
He urged the government to avoid a “totally home-made” showdown over the campaign rules by reinstating the ban on public body activity in the final 28 days of the campaign and urged Labour – which first introduced the rule – to help inflict a Commons defeat if they do not.
“If it is seen to be rigged, this whole issue will fester”Owen Paterson
As many as 80 backbench Tories are said to be ready to back a rebel amendment.
“It is unacceptable that there will be no limit to local government, national government or above all European government agencies spending money and sending information to citizens. That is going to skew the whole thing,” he said.
“This is a heartfelt plea to the government: if it is seen to be rigged, if the British people don’t think it’s fair, then whatever the result it won’t be seen to be legitimate and this whole issue will fester further.
“If this whole issue is swamped up to polling day it will not be a fair poll, so I really would ask the government very simply just to withdraw this whole thing and go back to the 28 days.
“We really don’t want an argument over this; it is totally home-made.”
Mr Cameron is due to meet the leaders of Italy, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Slovakia as he seeks to speak to all member states ahead of an EU summit at the end of the month, where Britain’s demands will be discussed.
Meanwhile, shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said Labour should not campaign alongside Mr Cameron or other Tories for a Yes vote to remain in the EU.
But he denied Labour’s downfall in Scotland was due to it joining Tories to campaign for the maintenance of the Union during the independence referendum, stressing the party also got “hammered” in the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections.
And former first minister Alex Salmond urged Tory rebels and Labour to join the SNP to prevent the referendum on Europe being held in tandem with devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.