EU debate exposes Cameron’s ‘cack-handed’ leadership

Cameron cannot ignore a humiliating blow in a fight of his own choosing

LAST UPDATED AT 16:46 ON Tue 25 Oct 2011

MORE THAN 80 Conservative MPs defied David Cameron's orders yesterday, voting in support of a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. But the vote said as much about the Prime Minister's leadership style as it did about the Tory divide on the EU.

Right debate, wrong time
It is a good thing that Parliament debated an issue that arose by popular demand from an e-petition, says The Times. "But MPs need to think harder about how they translate this popular will into useable form."

The eurozone crisis may eventually call for a new treaty, and in that case a referendum is already a legal requirement. It would make sense at that moment to repatriate powers to Britain. "But the moment is not now, and it is not on the confused terms that fell before parliament."

PM's careless management
The trouble is, Cameron has already promised some kind of referendum and then shelved that promise, says Tim Montgomerie in The Guardian. He had good arguments for the U-turn but "he has to understand that patience has run out". And the doubts have also grown about how serious he is about EU reform because of his "careless party management".

Yes, the rebellion by backbenchers has revealed a flaw in Cameron's leadership style, says an editorial in The Daily Telegraph. Cameron has shown that "he takes a pretty dim view of his backbenchers", in particular the independent-minded ones. A Prime Minister who tries to prevent his own party from expressing an unfettered opinion, especially when it is shared by a significant proportion of the public, "is straying into dangerous territory".

Damage done
David Cameron may control the coalition but he no longer commands his own party, says Melissa Kite in The Daily Mail. The Prime Minister can insist it does not matter that 80 of his own MPs defied him, but "he is whistling in the wind". His authority has suffered. "His cack-handed management of the Tory Party is beginning to look suicidal."

This could all have been avoided, says Richard Ehrman for The First Post. The motion would probably have been voted down anyway without the three-line whip, and what some rebels have called the PM's "bloody-mindedness".

The Prime Minister has always been a notably self-assured leader, adds Ehrman, but even he will not be able to shrug off a rebellion on this scale. To have suffered such a humiliating blow, "in a fight of his own choosing and after just 18 months in office, has done him real damage". · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.