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LONDON (Reuters) - As senior British Conservatives prepare to take sides in a referendum on European Union membership, some will be more focussed on their own future - and their chances of succeeding Prime Minister David Cameron - than that of the country.
While Cameron will allow his ministers to choose whether they support the 'in' or 'out' campaigns for the upcoming national vote, those hoping to become the next Conservative leader face a dilemma.
If they come out in favour of Britain remaining in the bloc, they risk alienating the party's largely eurosceptic membership. But if they opt for a British exit, they will find themselves campaigning against their own leader - something that is likely to hurt their ambitions if they end up on the losing side.
A draft deal on Britain's future published by the EU on Tuesday still has to be accepted by the other 27 member states. However, Cameron's support for the proposals has effectively fired the starting gun on the campaign for the referendum which he says could be held within a few months.
Cameron reminded his ministers this week that they must back his renegotiation effort until a final deal is reached, something he hopes to achieve at a summit of EU leaders on Feb. 18-19, but the British media are looking for signs of which way they will swing.
Eurosceptic Conservatives predict four or five cabinet ministers could back an 'out' vote, adding weight to their campaign. But with a leadership battle on the horizon, Cameron may have contained the risk of high profile splits.
Potential successors have been manoeuvring since Cameron said he would not stand again at the next national election in 2020, and what they say and do on Europe will be closely watched by the lawmakers and ordinary members who will choose the new party leader.
"The people who are thinking about going for the party leadership don't want to muck up their pitch," said Simon Usherwood, a fellow on the UK in a Changing Europe academic research programme.
Any senior Conservatives campaigning for Britain to leave would be following a high risk strategy. "They are going to have to go against Cameron and only one of them can win," he said.
Cameron once insisted his ministers would have to campaign for a collective cabinet position in the referendum but, faced with a likely eurosceptic rebellion, he dropped this demand.
Usherwood believes the prime minister has strengthened his hand by getting some wavering ministers involved in hammering out the deal with Brussels on revising British EU membership terms.
"Cameron has done a good job of making sure that he has dipped any number of people's hands in the blood of the renegotiation so that for them to then stop and say 'this (deal) is rubbish' becomes effectively impossible," he said.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who previously said he would vote to leave if the EU refused to change, has indicated he plans to back the 'in' campaign, saying he would find it difficult to oppose the government position and describing the draft deal as "a framework for substantial change".
Finance minister George Osborne, a close ally of Cameron, is the frontrunner for the party leadership, with flamboyant London Mayor Boris Johnson and interior minister Theresa May also among the favourites to be one of the two candidates chosen by Conservative lawmakers to go forward to a vote of party members.
A YouGov poll of 1,003 Conservative Party members in September found 33 percent would back Osborne for leader, compared with 31 percent for Johnson and 17 percent for May.
As Osborne has closely aligned himself with Cameron's position of staying in a reformed EU, the issue could give the more eurosceptic Johnson and May an opportunity to differentiate themselves.
But the 'out' campaigns' hopes of securing their backing could be thwarted by personal ambition.
Johnson, a former Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph whose father was a member of the European Parliament, has the potential influence to sway the outcome of the vote.
Polls show he is one of the most well-known politicians in the country and voters trust his opinion on the EU. He has also proven he has broad appeal, twice being elected mayor in the opposition Labour stronghold of London.
Johnson, who is not a member of Cameron's cabinet and can therefore speak freely on Europe, has flirted with backing 'out' but the risk of ending up on the losing side after campaigning against his leader is likely to prove too much of a barrier.
"His game plan, I think, is to be slightly more eurosceptic than Osborne and that is all he needs to do to make the eurosceptics feel that he is a better bet," Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson told Reuters. "He doesn't have to go the whole hog and take an enormous risk."
Johnson, who is due to step down as mayor in May, has been careful to talk up Cameron's renegotiation efforts. "He makes apparently loyal remarks which are actually raising the bar of what Cameron can be expected to achieve," said Gimson.
Lawmaker Steve Baker, co-chairman of the eurosceptic group Conservatives for Britain, predicts 50-70 of the party's 330 lawmakers will campaign for 'out', but acknowledges top cabinet ministers may hold back. "I am prepared at this point to go into the campaign without any cabinet big beasts," he told the BBC.
House of Commons leader Chris Grayling and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader, are among those tipped to campaign for 'out', and reported by the British media to be increasingly frustrated at not being allowed to air their views in public yet.
Despite talking tough at last year's Conservative conference on Britain's need to be able to curb immigration, interior minister May has largely stayed out of the EU renegotiation, keeping her cards close to her chest.
Once tipped as a leader of the 'out' side, some commentators now predict she could keep a low profile during the campaign and then portray herself as the best candidate to bring the party back together afterwards.
May has described Tuesday's draft proposals as "a basis for a deal".
With polls showing a majority of party members favour leaving the EU, would-be successors must still tread a fine line if they decide to campaign for 'in'.
"I imagine they are game playing it," said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. "None of those people can afford to be too enthusiastic if they want to win over Conservative members."
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan, editing by Elizabeth Piper and David Stamp