Despite the rebellion over Europe, the Tories remain united

The media will continue to play the issue hard, but beneath the surface lies a small triumph for Cam

The European Union referendum debate on Monday 24 October was supposed to be one of those great parliamentary occasions. The Commons chamber, deliberately designed to be on the small side in order to maximise proximity and conflict, heaved as MPs of all parties thronged the gangways. On the green benches, big beasts of the past pawed the ground, eager for the off, while younger colleagues sniffed the air expectantly.

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and their shadows were all present. Up in the gallery and in their distant commentary boxes, the media indulged their almost erotic fascination with the words "Tory", "split" and "Europe", teasing parliamentarians and the public alike, via Twitter and the blogs, into ever higher flights of rhetoric and fancy. Rumours flew. The shades of Maastricht hung heavy in the chamber.

Only it wasn't like that. Not that the debate was a damp squib - far from it. But instead of the Circus Maximus, what we got was a rather sober and wide-ranging discussion of a topic of vital national interest. Instead of rancour, there was politeness. Interventions were made and rebut­ted in a generally good-natured and thoughtful way. It wasn't a vicarage tea party - this was the House of Commons, after all - but the hostility and aggression of the 1990s were largely absent.

Helping hand

Why so? One reason was the timing of the debate. This came after the usual post-summit statement by the Prime Minister, which he turned, on this occasion, into a tour d'horizon, taking in the cessation of hostilities in Libya, the dire state of the eurozone and the referendum motion. A second reason was the respect felt by Conservative MPs for William Hague - an anti-euro veteran of 14 years, as he reminded them - who spoke for the government in the debate. A third was the natural courtesy and eloquence of the speakers, on both sides of the argument. A fourth was the 2010 intake of MPs, which has brought fresh thinking and independent minds to the chamber. A fifth was that the Speaker did not select any of the amendments, so that the focus was on the motion, not on any sub-tribes among Conservative MPs.

The main reason, however, was simple. This was, in many ways, not so much a debate within parliament as a debate within the Parliamentary Conservative Party. This was family. As David Cameron made clear, a motion in parliament that runs counter to government policy was never going to be purely advisory; least of all one following a petition of 100,000 signatures. It could not simply be ignored or laughed off. Most Tory MPs want the repatriation of powers from the EU but, for very good reasons, leaving the EU is not, and has never been, the policy of any mainstream UK party. Hence the whipped vote. Yet no one, however strong their feelings, wanted a shouting match.

The debate was made somewhat easier by Ed Miliband and his colleagues. The Labour leader had whipped his MPs to vote against the motion, partly for policy reasons and partly to be "helpful" to the government. Offers of help from across the floor are seldom designed to be helpful; in this case, the goal was to embarrass the government by encouraging more Tory MPs to protest by voting for the motion in the knowledge that it could not succeed. Miliband did not help himself by delivering a lacklustre Commons performance. And he had already risibly countenanced UK membership of the euro, telling an interviewer: "It depends how long I'm prime minister for."

Miliband has recently made a point of moralising about good capitalism and bad capitalism, about "predators" and "producers". Whatever you think about this - and I think that he is on to something important - this naturally takes him away from free markets in labour and capital, from distant regulators unconnected with our national interest, from neoliberal competition policy; in other words, away from the EU. Its natural counterpart is a left-wing Euroscepticism. Jon Cruddas, who voted with the Tory rebels in favour of the motion, understands this. It's not clear whether Miliband does.

Where does this leave the Tories? The result - with 79 Conservative MPs defying the whip, the largest number in recent history - is a serious matter and the Labour Party's so-called help may have increased an already substantial protest vote. The outcome will not disturb members of the general public, who place the EU well down their list of priorities and want to see the government fixing the economy, not preoccupied by Europe.

Nor will it deflect the government, which will have to get used to dealing with more "rebellions" as new petitions arise and are taken up by parliament. However, many Conservative Party members and activists will be deeply disappointed. The anti-federalists have won the argument and they will not be assuaged until the government makes clear progress in reclaiming powers.

Family business

The media will continue to play the issue hard, but beneath the surface lies a small triumph, both for the Conservatives and for parliament. Yes, Tory MPs have disagreed about the tactics of renegotiation with the EU and some will continue to argue for an in/out referendum. But, as a whole, they are remarkably united, not divided, over the EU issue.

As the debate showed, there was a great deal of parliamentary talent on both sides of the motion, from all sections of the party. These voices will be heard, in many different ways, as they deserve to be. Meanwhile, the "family" nature of the debate made Labour look strangely irrelevant and diminished.

Furthermore, the new constitutional machinery has worked surprisingly well. The petition mechanism has galvanised the general public; the new backbench business committee has presented a motion before parliament; from the Prime Minister down, the government has taken it seriously; there has been a thorough, well-informed and amicable debate; and the government has been reminded of the strength of feeling on this issue. With the eurozone still in crisis, the opportunity to deploy that feeling in negotiations with the EU cannot be far away.

Jesse Norman is the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire and a member of the Treasury select committee

Rafael Behr and Mehdi Hasan are away