By Paul Goodman
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I wrote recently that with most Conservative MPs and party member in favour of EU renegotiation and a referendum, the view of Cabinet members could be crucial when the next manifesto is drawn up. Friends of Michael Gove insist that he didn't mean to start a push for either by indicating that he wants to see a major repatriation of power. He was, they say, asked some straight questions at a dinner during party conference hosted by the Mail on Sunday, and he gave the paper some straight answers, including the admission that were an In/Out referendum to be held tomorrow, he would vote to leave.
But quitting, as the paper's report indicated, is not the Education Secretary's favoured option. Although he is in favour of a referendum after this Parliament ends, he believes that too much attention is being fixed on the details of a poll (when it should be held, what the question should be, and so forth) and not enough on the detail of a renegotiation and how to achieve its aims. "In the balance of things," a source said, "we need to think less about how to reply to letters from John Baron about a referendum, and more about how to work up Andrea Leadsom and Chris Heaton-Harris's renegotiation ideas".
I have argued previously that a referendum of some kind is now unavoidable – and is moving closer – and agree with Tim Montgomerie that, whatever the Education Secretary's intention, the Cabinet push is starting. Philip Hammond has now said that "the mood has changed" on the EU, and didn't disagree with Mr Gove's view that Britain must be prepared, if necesary to quit – a view that has been pushed energetically by Liam Fox. The former Defence Secretary is close to George Osborne, which brings the Chancellor's position on these matters into focus. He was pushing for renegotiation and a referendum earlier this year.
The hunt has begun for which Cabinet members share the Education Secretary's view about being prepared to leave the EU if necessary. Tim yesterday gave a figure of eight. Plainly, David Cameron wants to avoid being tied to a view or a timetable. But there has been no complaint from Number 10 to the Education Department about Mr Gove's words to the Mail on Sunday. And Downing Street recently indicated to ConservativeHome that there would be a bigger set of repatriation of powers proposals in the next manifesto than the last. The flow of events is carrying the Prime Minister towards the renegotiation and referendum of which he is so wary.