Cameron has not only lost control of his party, he has lost sight of the national interest

The chaos in the Conservative Party is a distraction from the real priorities for people across the country: jobs, growth and living standards.

David Cameron had a difficult week - with over 100 of his own MPs rebelling over Europe - but he should listen to the wise advice of former Tory foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, who savaged his approach to Europe in an article for the Observer.

Given the other headlines - a new low for the PM as "loongate" dominates - the broadside from Lord Howe must almost have felt like light relief. But it comes from the man whose gentle but deadly attack on Margaret Thatcher's approach to Europe marked the point when she lost control of her own party.

Geoffrey Howe is right that the UK's EU membership is "a key point of leverage for this country in the modern world." He is also right to underline that the Conservative leadership is "running scared of its own backbenchers".

During a week in which David Cameron hoped for positive headlines about his visit to the United States, the Tory civil war on Europe at home left his leadership in tatters. It was ironic that while many in his party were calling for the UK to leave the EU, including two of his own cabinet ministers, he was discussing the great benefits of an EU-US free trade agreement with President Obama.

The joke in Westminster last week among Tory MPs was that they did not need to worry about acting against the leadership because it was only a matter of 24 or 48 hours before their position would become Conservative party policy. The rushed publication of a private member's bill order by the PM from across the Atlantic was designed to quash the Tory rebellion on the eurosceptic amendment lamenting the absence in the Queen's Speech of legislation for an in-out referendum. Yet 116 Tory MPs rebelled anyway, effectively declaring that they don't trust their party leader to deliver.

The last seven days are only the latest demonstration of what Howe aptly describes as the "ratchet-effect of Euroscepticism". Cameron thought that his promise in January to hold an in/out referendum at some point in the next four years would satisfy the eurosceptic beast in his party, but it hasn't.

The real lesson of the local elections, and of the UKIP surge, however, is that sections of the electorate are distrustful of mainstream politicians and are concerned above all about jobs, immigration and welfare. The disappointing and worrying unemployment figures published last Wednesday were drowned out by the Conservative row on Europe. The government needs to get a grip and focus on getting the economy on track.

Our EU membership is crucial to our future prosperity. As Howe underlines, given the UK's three per cent share of global GDP and one per cent share of the world's population, the UK's EU membership magnifies our voice in the world, economically and diplomatically.

The CBI's director general John Cridland was right to stress last week that leaving the EU would be bad for British business. Shrinking our domestic market from 500 to 60 million consumers simply does not make sense. The EU also gives us greater weight and bargaining power in free trade negotiations with big and emerging economies. Foreign direct investment, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries, is attracted to our shores because we are a gateway to the world's largest single market.

The arrest of one of Britain's most wanted fugitives in Spain last week also served as a reminder that our EU membership is vital to the fight against organised crime and other challenges, like climate change, that are impossible for us to tackle alone.

Last week's chaos in the Conservative Party was a distraction from the real priorities for people across the country: jobs, growth and living standards. As Howe points out, it is the national interest, not party management or political advantage, which should guide decisions about our membership of the EU. Cameron has not only lost control of his party, he has also lost sight of the national interest. It falls to Labour to act responsibly, make a pragmatic and positive case for our continued EU membership and warn against the dangers of sleep-walking towards exit.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference at the EU headquarters on February 8, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister.

Getty Images.
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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.