Donald Macintyre's Sketch: International laughing stock, Prime Minister? Don’t worry – just blame it all on the rebels

John Baron can seem like a Mafia operative offering you the sort of protection that it would be unwise to refuse

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Indy Politics

Vainly urging the beleaguered David Cameron to endure even more humiliation than he has taken already by ordering ministers to support the rebel amendment, John Baron suggested that the Prime Minister could always “blame me” for doing so.

Great idea, John. Having become an international laughing stock by opposing his own Queen’s Speech, all Cameron would need to do is murmur the Basildon MP’s name as he toured the Chancelleries of Europe. “Ah, it was Monsieur/Signor/Herr Baron,” they would all say, clucking sympathetically: “Of course, we understand.”

There are things to admire about Baron, including his 2003 resignation from the Tory frontbench over the invasion of Iraq. But at times his demeanour suggests an inflated sense of himself as a famous Man of Destiny, like his fellow Sandhurst graduate Winston Churchill during the wilderness years, perhaps. This would be more convincing if his basic pitch wasn’t that of a Mafia operative offering protection that it would be unwise to refuse.

He was giving the PM a “golden opportunity”, he said. A Bill was needed “not because we do not trust the Prime Minister,” which he and his cohorts obviously don’t, “but because the electorate don’t trust politicians generally”. The current referendum pledge was “credible” but not yet “believable”.

Deconstruct that if you can.

Otherwise, in an orgy of hypothetical challenges all round, Ed Balls asked his Tory counterpart, Chancellor George Osborne, how he would vote in a EU referendum if the government failed to negotiate big concessions in Brussels – an outcome confidently predicted by Lord Lawson. Won’t happen, insisted Osborne, who wanted to know if  Balls would “rule out” a Labour referendum pledge in the next election. Balls wasn’t answering.

Earlier, the new macho 2013 model Nick Clegg more or less shouted himself out of trouble, taking Prime Minister’s Questions in what is beginning to seem like the routine absence of Cameron. Which is probably the Lib Dem leader’s best ploy when the MPs behind you are the ones causing most trouble – of which Edward Leigh’s production of a 2008 Clegg leaflet promising a referendum was only one of several examples. Was its author "an imposter or just a hypocrite?", Leigh asked.

For Cameron, however, it must all seem spookily like a rerun of John Major’s Maastricht torments. All the Prime Minister now needs is to be caught off camera, as his predecessor was, fulminating against Tory “bastards”. If that happens it really will be worth staying away from the Commons.