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Most Conservative MPs are leaning towards voting for the UK to leave the EU as the mood of the party has hardened against David Cameron’s attempted renegotiation in the last three weeks, according to the chair of the Tory leave group.

Steve Baker, who is co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain, said he thought the majority of the parliamentary party was leaning towards joining the leave campaign and that inclination was evident among both backbenchers and the ministerial ranks.

Baker, whose group is allied to the cross-party Vote Leave campaign, said “over half of the Conservative party is strongly leaning to leave”. In light of the clear split, he warned there would be “problems ahead” if Cameron did not allow free campaigning on both sides of the debate.

“I think for the sake of the country, party and quality of debate it would be much better if ministers have freedom to speak their mind on the EU issue,” he said.

His warning was echoed by two other senior Tories – Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, and Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, who said it would be a “catastrophic mistake” for Cameron to force all ministers to campaign for staying in the EU.

Fox became the first senior Conservative to confirm he will definitely push for a British exit on Sunday, in a move that could pave the way for other Tories to break rank before Cameron has finished his Brussels discussions.

Fox, a longtime Eurosceptic and former defence secretary, said it was clear that the prime minister would not be able to negotiate enough fundamental reforms to the UK’s relationship with the EU to satisfy him.

Writing in the Sunday Times, he said Cameron was going around Europe with a “political begging bowl”. The MP said Cameron should end his “pretence” of renegotiation and Britain should no longer be “tied to an economically failing, socially tense and politically unstable project”.

No cabinet minister has been able to publicly declare they back Britain leaving the EU because of collective responsibility, but Eurosceptic sources believe Theresa Villiers, Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith would be likely to resign rather than campaign to remain. Other cabinet ministers who could go either way include John Whittingdale, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Theresa May.

Baker said: “The party is about evenly leaning each way. Looking back carefully at my canvassing, I think there might be about 130 MPs in total who might lean in favour of voting to remain. That is a minority in the Conservative party and I think that is throughout government as well.”

Baker said he had found evidence of “hardening of opinion” against staying in the EU among his colleagues in the past three weeks, as they felt Cameron’s renegotiations would not deliver fundamental reform of the UK’s relationship with Brussels.

The MP for Wycombe said he had “very good reason to believe more colleagues will be declaring their support for Vote Leave in the weeks after new year” – before the prime minister has finished his negotiations with Brussels. Others will need to have discussions with their associations.

In a sign that Downing Street could be intending to insist that ministers toe the line, Sir John Major, who is still close to No 10, said people deserved to hear a clear-cut argument from Cameron and his cabinet. The former prime minister said it would be “extraordinary” if any cabinet minister said they would campaign for the UK to leave the EU before discussions were over.

Major said he “would very much hope they would not wish” to vote to leave. “The unity of the argument, the argument for the sake of the country, is very important,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. He added that he believed the EU would ultimately compromise on a deal because it needs the fastest-growing economy in the bloc to stay.

Major also said the UK would have to face the consequences of leaving the EU, as there would be no going back. “If we vote to stay out then we are out and we will have to get on with it and face the consequences, which will be many and varied. Of course we will survive – we are a big and a powerful nation – of course we will. That’s not the point. The point is would we be as safe? No. Would we be as well off? No. Would we be as influential? No. So that is the point that is really at issue.”

Cameron has claimed he made progress with European leaders in a discussion about his renegotiation demands at a Brussels summit last week. Eurosceptics now believe the referendum will probably be held in the summer of next year.

Before then, the prime minister wants concessions from Brussels on his demands for greater veto powers for national parliaments, protections for non-eurozone countries, an end to “ever closer union” and curbs for migrant benefits – but the last of these has met with significant opposition from other EU leaders.

The polls suggest the vote could be close, with public opinion showing asincreasingly Eurosceptic. An ICM poll for the Vote Leave campaign found 50% of voters were in favour of leaving, if those who said they were undecided were excluded. Overall, 41% wanted to leave while 42% wanted to stay, and the rest did not know.

The poll, published in the Daily Telegraph, found the numbers were different if Cameron won no concessions on freedom of movement and curbing migration. In that case, 45% would vote for a Brexit and 40% would back staying in the EU – or 53% to leave and 47% to remain, excluding undecideds.

A separate poll by Survation in the Express found 42% would vote to leave compared with 40% who would vote to stay.

Tag(s) : #Europe

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