Leading article: Forked-tongued Tories

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The ability to execute an elegant U-turn is an essential part of the politician's repertoire. And David Cameron was masterly in explaining why he was now going back on what many had believed was his firm promise to submit the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum.

He had, he said, always made clear that there would be no referendum if all 27 countries had ratified the treaty. Maybe he had, but never so loudly that many of his party members actually heard him. Allowing for their deafness, Mr Cameron said, rightly, that there was no point in a "phoney" referendum that could have no effect, and that a new government would have so much to tackle – what with the worst economic situation inherited by any party for 50 years – that a referendum would be no more than an expensive distraction.

On the other hand, he absolutely promised that if Brussels proposed to take more power in the future, the people would have to agree via a referendum – and that included on the euro. What is more, if the EU persisted in its dastardly centralising ways, that could be reason to hold a referendum in a second Conservative term. In other words, jam for the Eurosceptics five years hence, but not today, not tomorrow, nor yet next year.

In so saying, Mr Cameron may have bought himself a modicum of pre-electoral peace, but at the price of new hostages to fortune. With pledges of a British Sovereignty Act, the negotiated return of some powers from Brussels, and possible referendums to come, he risks taking his party's corrosive division over Europe into government – and not just through the next Parliament, but beyond.

In between the stylish bluster, however, the Conservative leader adopted another tone, calculated to calm European fears. He had no intention, he said, "of rushing into some massive Euro-bust-up". He was not setting out to "frustrate or sabotage" relations with Europe, and any changes would be negotiated "while remaining, of course, a member of the EU". It is regrettable that Mr Cameron finds it politic to speak of Europe with forked tongue. If his party is elected, he will have to decide which is his real voice.

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