Europe again, and it was all going so well...

The next election may be a contest to see who is more determined to lose

Share

What is the matter with Conservative MPs? Just as the Prime Minister starts to pull it together, with a disciplined message about a "society that rewards people who work hard", however ridiculous it sounded in the Queen's voice, they decide to bang on about Europe. Just as the economy might be about to turn upwards; just as Abu Qatada clicks Online Check-in; just as David Cameron sweeps from Moscow to Washington on his global statesman tour – Tory MPs decide that what they must do this week is vote on a symbolic amendment in the Commons, on an issue their voters think is the 10th most important facing the country.

What, in particular, possessed Nigel Lawson to decide that last week, after the UK Independence Party's success in the local protest elections, was the time to announce that he had changed his mind about the European Union: "While I voted In in 1975, I shall be voting Out in 2017"?

Two other conversions to EU withdrawal were reported last week. One was Michael Portillo, but his change of mind is hardly recent: he refused to say whether he thought Britain would be better off out as long ago as 1997. The other was Margaret Thatcher, whose U-turn allegedly occurred even longer ago. Charles Moore, her biographer, said, "I think it happened after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992", but that she had been persuaded by her advisers not to say so in public.

I am not convinced: do we believe that if she had decided we should leave the single market she helped to create she would have kept quiet about it?

That the mood of the Conservative Party has shifted towards withdrawal over the years, however, cannot be denied. The question is why so many Tory MPs think that now is the time, having taken the momentous step only four months ago of promising a referendum on EU membership, to go further and put that promise to a vote in Parliament and see it defeated, simply to show how much it means to them.

The vote is a procedural inanity: it is for or against expressing regret that the Government has failed to announce a Bill to provide for a referendum in 2017. If you follow. And the Bill that has not been announced would not have been passed anyway, because Labour and the Liberal Democrats would vote against it. Not only that, even if it were passed, it would not guarantee a referendum, because no parliament can bind its successor.

Any dispassionate person can see that to respond to the Ukip surge by dividing the Tory party – and the coalition – on Europe is a mistake. Let us work backwards from what the Better Off Outers want. To leave the EU, they must have a referendum. To do that, they must win an election. To do that, they must unite behind the Prime Minister's position. It is not hard, is it? Just three stages, and stages two and three dependent on the stage before.

What a triumph, therefore, to put Cameron in a position where he has to pretend not to mind that much of his party wants to vote for moonshine before breakfast. Officially, his position is that he agrees with his own party, but as the leader of a coalition he can put things in the Queen's Speech only if the Liberal Democrats agree. So when it comes to Wednesday's vote, he will allow a free vote of his backbenchers, but ministers will be required to abstain. Coalition-minded continentals are supposed to be relaxed about this sort of thing, but to British eyes Cameron just looks a bit foolish.

So why are so many Tory MPs acting against their own interests? There is only one explanation: they believe in it. When Tory MPs say it is about Europe, that is what they mean. That is what they care about, and they cannot see that their strength of feeling might get in the way of achieving their aim. Lord Lawson wrote that article for The Times because that is what he believes and he wants people to know it because he thinks it matters for the country.

That is honourable and right. The question of our membership of the EU is hugely important, even if it is too early to say what will emerge from the disaster of the euro. But banging on about third-stage hypothetical questions is also poor political tactics.

Cameron, therefore, just has to try to carry on. One Downing Street source described his relationship with his party as "like a marriage". I was told: "It is as if one spouse says, 'I want to have an argument with you', and the other replies, 'I don't, because I agree with you.'" I'm not sure what a Relate counsellor would say about that. But Cameron's great advantage is that Ed Miliband won't exploit his weakness, because that might mean spelling out Labour's opposition to "letting the people have a say". That is the only posture that might be more unpopular than obsessive disunity.

The next election might look like a contest to see which side is more determined to lose: between the feebleness of the Labour alternative and the indiscipline of the true Eurosceptic believers in the Conservative Party.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an intermediate help de...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Injury Fee Earners

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist personal injury...

Recruitment Genius: New Business Sales Executive / Business Development

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing, UK based I...

Recruitment Genius: Tennant Liaison Officer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An experienced TLO is required to manage, deli...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

A promised 'women's museum' opens as a Jack the Ripper exhibit tonight, and I won't take it lying down

Becky Warnock
A protester wears a golden mask and Romanian flag during a demonstration in Bucharest against Gabriel Resources Rosia Montana gold and silver project  

Corporate vampires have tried to suck $4 billion out of Romania, and with TTIP the UK could be next

Kevin Smith
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen