John Rentoul: The PM surfs the euro-breakers

In quashing referendum hopes, David Cameron flexes the political muscle that looks good on television

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Some Conservative MPs are furious. Some are puzzled. Almost none seems to understand what is going on. In the Commons last week I was told that David Cameron had "betrayed" them by ordering them to vote against a referendum on Europe. (Their manifesto, they complain, promised to "negotiate... to return powers" from Brussels.) Or that the Prime Minister had "mishandled" the vote badly. Betrayed? Mishandled? They are the ones who are betraying him, who could have "handled" their madness in no other way. What is more, Cameron is the one who will emerge victorious and strengthened.

The madness has spread to some of my colleagues in the reporting business. No doubt the air will be thick this weekend with BBC journalists interviewing each other and asking how much the Prime Minister's authority is weakened by this rebellion. Not at all, is the answer, although that would fail to make an interesting enough "two-way" for the bulletins.

You can see why some people are excited. For a large minority of Conservative MPs, it is a psychopathology familiar to those of us who were around in mid 1990s. At that time, Iain Duncan Smith was someone I would be pleased to see in or around the Members' Lobby because, as a centrist among Eurosceptics, he would have the best intelligence on the next vote. In those days, the hard- core sceptics, who hated the Maastricht Treaty even with an opt-out for Britain from the single currency, were people such as Teresa Gorman, Tony Marlow and Bill Cash, who showed their grasp of the nuances of democracy by seeing nothing remotely foolish about the prospect of John Redwood as prime minister.

Their successors today – MPs such as Douglas Carswell, Peter Bone and, oh yes, Bill Cash – have a similar understanding of how to win elections, and a similar interest in our relationship with the European Union to the exclusion of all else. For them, tomorrow's vote is the first step towards withdrawal from the EU (in Carswell and Bone's case) or renegotiation of our terms of membership (in Cash's), and nothing else matters.

I do not criticise them for their objectives. There is a stronger case for leaving the EU than is considered acceptable to express in polite society, to which I shall come in a moment. But the strategy is lamentable. Pushing for a vote in the Commons that they are certain to lose is not a clever way to advance the cause. Appearing to replicate the introspective obsession of the Gorman-Marlow era is not an obvious way to persuade people that they are actually inhabitants of this planet whose intentions are friendly.

For some of the single-issue MPs who have pushed for tomorrow's vote, the existence of a wider Conservative Party is a mystery, let alone that of their coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats. As for the idea of working with the Labour Party, they look at you as if the translator has just lost the Finnish commissioner. You might have thought that, if public opinion is becoming more Eurosceptic (and I am coming to that, I promise), they should try to persuade the Labour leadership to seek opportunist advantage, in the way that John Smith harassed John Major over the Maastricht Treaty. And then to wait, wait and wait again.

Because now is not the time. The unworldly sceptics think that, because the eurozone crisis has proved them right, which it has, a grateful nation will turn to them to lead it out of slavery. On the contrary, being right about locking European currencies together does them no good at all. People can see that the euro crisis has little to do with the case for or against Britain's membership of the EU, and that preparing for a referendum, by adding to uncertainty, might make the economic crisis in our main export market worse.

If Britain is going to reconsider its membership of the EU, that is something that will happen over decades. It would require the Labour Party to split again on the question – at the moment the party is fairly united on Europe – and it would require the British to decide that free movement of labour is not in their interest, which would be a big deal.

That said, the hold of the European ideal over the liberal imagination in Britain has been broken. For a long time, that Britain should eventually adopt the euro was an article of faith on the liberal left. We couldn't remember why – the economic case as a bulwark against inflation had been refuted in 1992 – but the inertia was strong. The same applied to immigration and the influx of Poles after EU enlargement in 2004; that mostly reflected and reinforced economic success, but it is no longer socially disabling to suggest that it was also bad for some poorer Britons, or that it drew attention, at least, to the persistence of welfare dependency.

At the same time, it is possible now to suggest that the Human Rights Act is not the statutory equivalent of the Promised Land, and even Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said last week that decisions of the European Court of Human Rights might not be as binding as we thought they were.

That is a tide turning, that is. But it will take a long time, and it will not make the slightest difference to the vote tomorrow. My guess is that the rebellion will be smaller than most of the estimates.

MPs who want to be ministers have got the message of the mini-reshuffle that followed Liam Fox's departure: be (a) loyal and (b) close to George Osborne. Many of them are frustrated, and many of them want to be seen as Eurosceptic in the re-selection battles that will follow the boundary changes. But ambition comes first, so they will knuckle under.

In any case, it would be disastrous for Cameron to wobble now. He will win the vote, assert his authority over his party and appear strong on the television news. Not for the first time, he understands politics better than his opponents do.;

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