A senior British minister said on Sunday that he would support a withdrawal from the European Union if a vote were called today although he promised to abstain from voting for a motion that might prompt just that.
Education secretary Michael Gove argued during an appearance on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that life outside the European Union would be “perfectly tolerable” for the United Kingdom. “There would be certain advantages,” he suggested. “But my preference is for a change in Britain’s relationship with the European Union.”
Defense secretary Philip Hammond agreed in a radio interview when he said that “the best deal for Europe, and for Britain, would be if Britain were to lead the change that Europe needs.” Asked whether he would favor the United Kingdom pulling out of the European Union, Hammond said he did if the terms of its membership remained “exactly as it is today.”
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to call a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership after the next general election, due in two years’ time. By then, he hopes to have achieved treaty changes in the island nation’s relationship with the rest of Europe to persuade voters to stay in the bloc.
Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Britons would rather leave the European Union altogether. Up to one hundred of Cameron’s own Conservative Party lawmakers favor withdrawal or at least organizing a plebiscite as soon as possible rather than wait for elections that Labour, currently in opposition and largely opposed to the referendum, could very well win.
Gove was the first senior ruling party member to publicly declare his preference for an exit. Two more ministers have announced that they will abstain from voting on an amendment next week that criticizes the government’s decision not to call a referendum sooner.
The education secretary, who is considered a potential rival to Cameron’s for the party’s leadership, also backed the prime minister’s strategy, however. “My own view is let the prime minister lay out our negotiation platform, make sure that he has a majority, which I’m convinced he’ll secure at the next election, and let’s have the referendum then,” he said.
In doing so, writes The Telegraph‘s Iain Martin, Grove “squares the circle.”
He cheers the Tory rebels by legitimizing a Brexit, backs a renegotiation and referendum and praises the hitherto hidden general election winning abilities of his friend the prime minister.
However, if Cameron fails to renegotiate Britain’s membership — likely, given other member states’ reluctance to enact more treaty changes after Dutch and French voters rejected in 2005 what later became the Lisbon Treaty — Gove, if he does seek the premiership, has virtually committed himself to leading the country out of the European Union; a position that could yet prove unpopular if British voters change their minds and decide that they want to stay in after all.