The juxtaposition could hardly be more marked. On one side of the Atlantic, yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister stood alongside Barack Obama in the White House and extolled the virtues of a US/EU trade agreement he has described as a “once-in-a-generation prize”. Meanwhile, back at home, his party is whipping itself into an anti-European fervour, and a not-insignificant cadre of MPs is gearing up to back a rebel amendment criticising the Queen’s Speech for failing to set in train an in/out referendum.
For parliamentarians to censure their own Government’s legislative programme is a rare step. Even more unusual is for the Prime Minister to allow backbenchers (although, in fairness, not ministers) a free rein on the issue. There has been a multitude of rationalisations in recent days – the vote allows the frustrated to let off steam, it shows the electorate what the Tories would do with a majority, and so on. None is sufficient to explain away either the Conservatives’ rapid reversion to type on Europe, or Mr Cameron’s so obvious loss of control of them.
The sceptical rumblings were disruptive enough when they were restricted to a disaffected rump, frustrated by coalition and blaming their modernising leader for it. But the old obsession is spreading. Last week’s outbursts from Lord Lawson and Michael Portillo fanned the flames. Then, Sunday’s admissions from two Tory cabinet ministers that, in a referendum tomorrow, they would vote to leave poured on the petrol.
The damage to the Prime Minister’s authority is so catastrophic that it barely matters that neither Michael Gove nor Philip Hammond will put their name to the forthcoming vote. Mr Cameron was reduced to a blustering dismissal of their remarks – from the US – on the grounds that, since there is to be no immediate referendum, they are merely “hypothetical”. So weak a response speaks volumes of the weakness of his position.
But the Tory leader is not the only one in danger of being engulfed by the conflagration. The party’s chances of electoral success are no less at risk. For all the polls suggesting that a small majority of the public, spooked by the euro crisis, is now in favour of withdrawal, Europe is far down the list of priorities when compared with the stagnant economy, ever-rising living costs and immigration, to name but three. Nor do parties riven with internal strife endear themselves to the electorate. Another two years of watching the Tories tear themselves apart – again – over Europe will guarantee nothing so certainly as a Conservative defeat.
In the meantime, it is Britain that will be the loser if the Prime Minister allows himself to be dragged hither and thither by the whims of his party’s neuroses. And it is with the country, after all – and not his party – that Mr Cameron’s primary responsibilities lie. In fact, this week’s trip to the US offers the Prime Minister an ideal opportunity to regain the initiative and act the statesman he is supposed to be.
First, there is the trade agreement. With its potential to add perhaps £10bn per year to British GDP, the proposed pact is emblematic of the economic benefits of our remaining within Europe. It is up to Mr Cameron to say so. Then there is Mr Obama’s observation yesterday – and not for the first time – that participation in the EU is a factor in Britain’s influence. Again, it is up to the Prime Minister to be sure that the message is heard.
Mr Cameron has said that, pending a renegotiation of Britain’s position, he hopes to vote Yes in any in/out referendum. It is time he started explaining why that is.