Michael Gove would back Britain leaving the EU
But he insisted he firmly backed Prime Minister David Cameron’s strategy to seek the return of powers before putting a new relationship to an in/out vote by 2017 and played down a planned rebel Queen’s Speech vote as MPs “letting off steam”.
He said he intended to abstain if an amendment calling for paving legislation to cement the referendum pledge was put to a vote this week – after ministers were told not to back it.
Several had otherwise been tipped to join up to 100 backbenchers who have been given free rein to effectively vote against part of their own government’s Queen’s Speech programme.
Asked about reports last year that he told friends he would vote No if there was a referendum now, Mr Gove said: “Yes, I’m not happy with our position with the European Union. But my preference is for a change in Britain’s relationship.
“My ideal is exactly what the majority of the British public’s ideal is, which is to recognise the current situation is no good, to say that life outside would be perfectly tolerable, we could contemplate it, there would be certain advantages.
“But the best deal for Europe and for Britain would be if Britain were to lead the change that Europe needs.”
Tory MP John Baron, who organised a letter signed by 100-plus Conservative MPs last year calling for legislation and tabled the amendment after Mr Cameron ruled it out, said without it the referendum pledge was “credible, but it is not yet believable”.
Paving legislation “would be a concrete way of demonstrating serious intent”.
Downing Street has indicated that Mr Cameron is “relaxed” about the idea of Tory MPs formally attacking his government’s Queen’s Speech in the Commons division lobbies.
And it says he is prepared to “look at all ways of strengthening his commitment”.
The amendment is expected to be selected for debate by Speaker John Bercow in Wednesday’s debate on the legislative programme.
Tory unrest over the issue has been inflamed by the electoral success of the anti-EU UK Independence Party and Tory grandees such as former chancellor Lord Lawson advocating withdrawal.
Labour leader Ed Miliband on Saturday reiterated his opposition to the referendum promise, saying it would damage the UK’s national interest, and strongly backing membership of the EU.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls, however, insisted the Opposition should not “set our face against” a referendum.
“I think [a commitment to a referendum] is the wrong thing to do now, but I don’t think we should set our face against consulting the British people,” he said yesterday. “I don’t think we should say anything which gives the impression we don’t understand their concerns.”
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said it would be “bizarre” if ministers defied collective responsibility by voting for the amendment and said he would abstain.
Home Secretary Theresa May said she believed there was a need for change in Europe but declined to say whether she would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held tomorrow.