Tory rebels have done David Cameron real damage

The vote was not just about Europe – it was about whether Tories still trust their leader

Column LAST UPDATED AT 14:08 ON Tue 25 Oct 2011

WHEN David Cameron became Conservative leader, one of the first things he did was to tell his party to stop "banging on" about Europe. That, in itself, was remarkable, given that the Tories had done little else for the best part of a decade. Even more remarkable was that, until last night, by and large it worked.

Yesterday, faced with a Commons motion demanding a referendum on Britain's future in the EU supported by 81 of his own MPs in defiance of a three- line whip, and with another 15 abstaining, the Prime Minister can have been left in no doubt that those happy days are over.

Nor were these just the usual eurosceptic suspects. Nearly half of all the Prime Minister's backbenchers defied him, including many young MPs with their careers ahead of them.

Yet the showdown could have been avoided. Left to their own devices, MPs would probably have voted the motion down. And even if it had passed, the result would not have been binding on the Government.

According to the rebels, the reason it all became so acrimonious was bloody-mindedness on the part of the Prime Minister. Given just how bad relations now are between the PM and many of his MPs (see my piece last week) there is probably an element of truth in this. The full story, though, is more complicated.

What gave yesterday's vote added edge is that both sides now think it likely that, at some point in the next few years, we will have a European referendum. This will not be because the PM suddenly changes his mind. Ironically, it will be down to a piece of legislation the coalition itself put on the statute book just a few months ago.

Under the little known Referendum Act, any new Treaty or transfer of power to Brussels has to be approved by a popular vote. When the new law was debated, the expectation was that any such change was a long way off. Since then, of course, the Euro crisis has brought the prospect of a new Treaty much closer, as Cameron himself admitted in Brussels on Sunday.

But while both sides think that a referendum is now likely, they certainly do not agree as to what it should be about. At the very least, Tory backbenchers want to see significant powers repatriated from Brussels. In the coalition agreement, however, that part of the Conservative manifesto was quietly dropped, in the face of Lib Dem objections.

What Tory MPs were most fearful of yesterday is that Cameron, ever mindful of keeping the Lib Dems on side, will go for the minimum in any Treaty renegotiation. The last thing they want is a referendum on what he described, rather tactlessly, on Sunday as "some limited treaty change".

Seen in this light, the sceptics' insistence on pushing their motion when the world is gripped by the Euro crisis, does not look so cack-handed after all. But nor does Cameron's determination to see them off. They reckoned that they needed to stake out their position well in advance of any negotiations at the European level. He feared his authority would be fatally compromised if he did not nip them in the bud.

In the event it was the PM who emerged with a bloody nose, despite promising at the last moment that he, too, was determined to see powers repatriated.

But even if Cameron's problems with his backbenchers do now recede for a while – and it is a big if – he still has to keep the Lib Dems sweet. They held their peace this week, but their attachment to Europe is almost as great as the Tories' hostility. And then there is the little matter of the EU itself, much of which, as President Sarkozy made clear to him on Saturday, is deeply suspicious of Cameron's motives.

It is now nearly 20 years since the Conservatives tore themselves apart over the Maastricht Treaty. Yesterday showed that the issue, handled ineptly, has lost none of its power to divide them. In the end, though, this vote was not just about Europe, it was also about Cameron himself and whether his own party still trusts him.

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