It has been a topsy-turvy week. David Cameron headed off to the United States for a trip that should have been a spin-doctor’s dream. It turned into a nightmare. He was dogged by events back home as Eurosceptic Conservative MPs caused mayhem in his absence.
Their craving for a referendum on Europe created the crazy spectacle of no Conservative MPs voting for the Queen’s Speech in its entirety, even though it is the legislative programme of a Tory-dominated government. Tory ministers abstained on an amendment regretting the absence of an EU Referendum Bill in the Speech, while 114 Tory MPs defied Mr Cameron by backing the amendment.
Only the Liberal Democrats fully supported the Coalition’s programme. “This is the first time I have voted for a prime minister to defend him from his own party,” said Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem leader. A Queen’s Speech is an opportunity for a government to secure positive media coverage. The Tories have managed to turn this one into another omnishambles.
Mr Cameron and his aides repeatedly insisted they were “very relaxed” because this chaos highlighted his pledge to hold an in/out referendum on Europe by 2017. The Prime Minister was anything but “very relaxed”. Every spare second of his team on the three-day visit to the US was spent on the phone to Downing Street dealing with the chaos back home. He even had to send one of his spin doctors back to London to help fight the media firestorm.
Normally, a visit to the White House is a chance to look the statesman on the world stage. But Mr Cameron was in the bizarre position of pushing a historic EU-US trade deal when his hosts knew his own party was obsessing about leaving the EU. On the day he left for Washington, two Cabinet ministers, Michael Gove and Philip Hammond, told interviewers they would vote to withdraw if a referendum were held now. They didn’t need to answer the question. The official line was: there isn’t going to be a referendum until 2017. Their answer showed they have an eye on the Tory leadership race that would follow an election defeat in 2015. It is now respectable for Tories to talk about quitting the EU. The rules of the game changed two weeks ago when Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor, advocated withdrawal and warned that Mr Cameron was unlikely to secure the “new settlement” he seeks with the EU.
So Mr Cameron had to ask the US President to endorse his strategy. Mr Obama obliged, saying: “You probably want to see if you can fix what’s broken in a very important relationship before you break it off.” That would have produced positive headlines after days of being dominated by Tory splits over Europe. But Mr Cameron managed to eclipse his own good news by rushing out a draft EU Referendum Bill in an attempt to head off the Queen’s Speech revolt. That was seen, rightly, as a panic measure. To make matters worse, it didn’t work, since half of Tory backbenchers still rebelled over the Speech.
Mr Cameron should not have been surprised. Eurosceptics are never satisfied – whether Tory MPs or in the UK Independence Party. They always come back for more. The Prime Minister’s big speech on Europe in January, promising a 2017 referendum, was designed to kick the issue beyond the 2015 election. It failed. “We didn’t shoot Ukip’s fox; we fed it,” one insider admitted yesterday. Nor was the appetite of Tory MPs satiated. Some demanded two referendums – one before the general election and one afterwards. And 2017 was too late for others, even though the great renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms has not even started, and there is no knowing when it will finish.
There was a logic to Mr Cameron’s strategy, as the Tories could portray themselves as the only major party promising an in/out referendum on Europe at the next election. But it could work only if Tory Eurosceptics trusted him to deliver it, and shut up. They don’t, and they haven’t. They suspect he rather likes being in coalition and fear their party cannot win a majority in 2015. So they have been trying to nail him to his referendum pledge by demanding legislation before the election to guarantee one afterwards. Their constant pressure makes him look weak. To keep them at bay, he has had to throw his weight behind a Private Member’s Bill promising a 2017 referendum, ensuring his MPs keep banging on about Europe for the next 12 months. Labour and the Lib Dems will point to that while they focus on “jobs and growth”.
The Conservatives have a new anti-Labour attack line: “Same Old Labour.” We can expect to hear it a lot. It is clever, signalling that Ed Miliband has not changed his party and has lurched to the left. It was also meant to be an antidote to Labour’s “Same Old Tories” slogan. After their week of madness, it is the Tories who deserve the “same old, same old” label.