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Education Secretary Michael Gove would vote for Britain to leave the EU if there was a referendum today, he has said.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show “life outside would be perfectly tolerable, we could contemplate it”.
But he said the best course was to follow David Cameron’s plan to renegotiate powers and “lead” the change Europe needed.
And then to put the in/out question to the public in a referendum.
Mr Gove is the most senior Conservative to date to publicly contemplate backing Britain’s exit from the EU, although “friends” of the cabinet minister have previously told a newspaper that is where he stands.
‘Letting off steam’
“Life outside would be perfectly tolerable, we could contemplate it, there would be certain advantages.”
Tory backbenchers have tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech regretting the absence of legislation paving the way for a referendum in the government’s plans for the year ahead.
Mr Gove described this as “letting off steam”.
And he said he planned to abstain if there was a Commons vote on the amendment.
“My own view is let the prime minister lay out our negotiating strategy, make sure he has a majority, which I am convinced he will secure at the next election, and let’s have the referendum then.”
Home Secretary Theresa May also said she would abstain in the Commons vote, which will be held on Tuesday or Wednesday if it is called by Speaker John Bercow.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond also suggested, on the BBC’s Sunday Politics, that he would abstain.
“Voting in favour is absolutely out of the question because we have collective responsibility for the Queen’s Speech,” he said.
“But I would not want to vote against it and allow that to be misinterpreted as in any way questioning our commitment to, our belief in, the idea of a referendum.”
He said the significance of the vote had been “enormously inflated,” adding: “We are all violently agreeing here: we all believe that there needs to be a referendum on Europe; we all believe that the British people need to have a say; and we also all agree that we need to make very clear to the public that commitment to a referendum.”
Like Mrs May, he refused to be drawn on whether he would also vote yes to Britain’s exit in a referendum.
David Cameron has promised an in/out referendum in 2017 – if the Conservatives win the next election.
A group of Conservative backbenchers, led by John Baron, have been campaigning for him to firm up this commitment by legislating in the current Parliament for a referendum.
The rebel MPs wanted the legislation to be included in last week’s Queen’s Speech setting out the government’s plans for the year ahead.
Mr Cameron has said he was prevented from doing so by the Lib Dems.
So the rebels have taken the unusual step of tabling an amendment to the Queen’s Speech debate, raising the prospect of government MPs voting against their own programme. It is thought about 100 backbench MPs could do so.
The amendment, tabled by Mr Baron and fellow Eurosceptic Peter Bone, expresses regret that the government has not announced an EU referendum bill.
It is highly unlikely to be passed, as Labour, the Lib Dems and many Conservatives will vote against it or abstain but Mr Baron has said it will keep the issue in the spotlight.
The furore has been seized on by Labour as a sign that Mr Cameron has lost control of his party.
The Conservatives say Mr Miliband is unwilling to give the public a say on a vital issue.
Speaking on Sky’s Murnaghan programme, shadow chancellor Ed Balls said: “I don’t think we should set our face against consulting the British people.”
He said Labour would back a referendum if there was “any proposal to change the powers between Britain and the European Union which would take powers away from Britain”.
But he said the party would not make a commitment to a referendum at a time when there was a push to reform the EU as it would be “destabilising” and not “statesmanlike”.