Rising to his feet, Nicholas Soames, the larger than life – in every sense – Tory MP for Mid-Sussex spread a frisson of anticipation among MPs assembled for day three of the Queen’s Speech debate.
Would Mr Soames, whose brilliant yellow socks once appalled Margaret Thatcher – would this grandson of Winston Churchill whose father was not only a former ambassador to France but Vice-President of the European Commission – would he be able to resist the opportunity to place his imposing bulk in the way of the Europhobic hordes threatening to over-run his great party?
No, he wouldn’t. “I think that some of my honourable and indeed my right honourable [this a scarcely coded reference to the cabinet members present and past who want out: Gove, Hammond, Lawson, Portillo et al] need to be a little cautious in trivialising what is involved,” he thundered, before announcing that the “hugely important decision” envisaged in the promised referendum was “not to be taken on the basis of prejudice or pub rhetoric. No good is done to the public governance of this country in this constant chipping away at trust and at the Government’s integrity. If the Prime Minister says that something will happen … it will happen, with orderly process and proper debate, and not in some hysterical, knee-jerk publicity-seeking act”.
“Pub rhetoric”? “Knee-jerk publicity seeking”? Perhaps only a man with his political pedigree could have so magisterially condemned the tormentors of the absent Cameron. True, Sir Malcolm Rifkind had expressed on the Today programme his bafflement that anti-European government backbenchers had decided to split the party by amending the Queen’s Speech on the non-issue of whether it should have included a Referendum Bill.
But not even he had laid about the “big beasts” of anti-Europeanism. And while even Boris Johnson had declared that Cameron had his “full support” in promising a referendum, in true Borisian style he had carefully kept his options open on how he would vote in it.
So, Soames was Horatius at the bridge to Rome – as plucky and, among Tory backbenchers prepared to speak out, almost as lonely. Would he be for ever commemorated for gallantly stemming the tide engulfing his party, as has been the Captain of the Gates for seeing off Lars Porsena’s Etruscan invaders?
Cameron, 3,600 miles away, could only hope so.