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

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

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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

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