British Prime Minister David Cameron will make clear on Tuesday that he will let government ministers campaign to leave the European Union in an upcoming referendum, a source in his office said, heading off the risk of resignations from his top team.
Cameron is seeking to renegotiate Britain's EU ties before a vote due by the end of 2017. He has said he wants Britain to stay in a reformed EU but does not rule out leaving if he fails to get key changes to Britain's relationship with the bloc.
The British leader is due to update parliament on his EU renegotiation on Tuesday, and a source in his office said he would "give a strong signal" that collective responsibility in the cabinet would effectively be suspended during the EU referendum campaign.
"He will make clear collective responsibility continues to apply all the way up until a deal is done.... at that point clearly the government will take a position on the deal," said the source, who declined to be named.
"If there are some individual ministers who want to campaign in a different way, he will make clear that will be accommodated."
Europe has divided the Conservatives for three decades. It played a major part in the downfall of Cameron's two Conservative predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Up to a third of Cameron's cabinet - including Home Secretary Theresa May, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Business Secretary Sajid Javid and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith - have expressed Eurosceptic sentiments.
EU February summit
There has been speculation that some ministers would have resigned as ministers if he had forced them to campaign for 'in' and Cameron had been under pressure from many in his party to promise ministers would be able to speak openly.
Cameron's former coalition partners the Liberal Democrats accused him of putting "internal party strife" above what is best for the country by allowing ministers to diverge from the
"Now is not the time to back down. The government should take a collective position on this issue, and if ministers disagree with the prime minister they should resign," Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said in a statement.
In December, Cameron indicated that he hoped a deal at a Feb. 17-18 summit of EU leaders could pave the way for a vote as early as June.
Campaigners for Britain to leave the EU welcomed Tuesday's decision but said ministers should be free to campaign as soon as the February summit was complete.
"The British people deserve to hear where their elected representatives stand on this vitally important issue," said Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of Vote Leave.