The indications are mounting, however, that the summer of 2016 is when voters will be asked to decide.
The prime minister has told the House of Commons that he hopes to complete the renegotiation of the UK’s membership with his EU partners by mid-February. The growing likelihood is that a plebiscite will be held in June or July and that he will lead the campaign for Britain to remain in the bloc, whatever he brings back from Brussels.
At least three members of his top team — and up to half of his backbench MPs — are thought to be committed to withdrawal. The fear of some in the party is that, if prominent Eurosceptics are granted free rein to voice their beliefs, the Tories might split irrevocably.
Some argue that the question of whether Britain remains in the EU is of historic importance and that the cabinet should be united on the matter. Treating it as a “personal” issue where ministers can decide as they see fit will look puzzling to Britain’s EU partners. It could also be harder for Mr Cameron to persuade the public that the UK should remain in the bloc if leading cabinet figures openly oppose him.
Yet an insistence on collective cabinet responsibility would have been impractical and counterproductive. It would have led to a wave of ministerial resignations from the government, further poisoning the mood in the party. It would also have appeared dishonest. The public is fully aware that the Tories are split on Europe and any attempt to disguise this fact would have been met with derision.
His decision to relax party discipline over Brexit should therefore be seen as a liberating moment. It relegates questions of party management to the sidelines and opens the way for the full-scale debate on the merits of EU membership that the national interest has long demanded.
So far Mr Cameron has been relatively silent, having pledged not to campaign until it is clear what concessions he has extracted from Brussels. Yet the terms of his renegotiation are so narrow that the outcome is unlikely to have much impact on the referendum debate. The substantive economic case for staying in the EU is in danger of being sidelined.
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