Today’s headlines are predictably terrible for David Cameron. “Bloody nose for Cameron“, “80 Tories humble Cameron” and so on. Most of the left and the right, albeit for different reasons, believe that the Prime Minister blundered badly by imposing a three-line whip on Conservative backbenchers. Even if it is erroneous to compare last night’s vote with the Maastricht rebellion, which was over government legislation, this was still the largest ever Conservative rebellion over Europe.
But for several reasons it was Cameron, not his critics, who called this one right. For a start, the likely consequence of allowing a free vote would have been an even larger rebellion. As John Rentoul noted yesterday, the number of rebels could have exceeded 120, a majority of Tory backbenchers. Today’s headlines would have been even worse for the PM.
By refusing to vote in favour of an EU referendum, Cameron has also demonstrated that he has a better grasp of public opinion than his right-wing opponents. British voters might be the most eurosceptic in the EU (54 per cent believe that the UK has “not benefited” from its membership of the EU, more than in any other country) but they are not obsessed with the subject.
Polling by Ipsos-MORI shows that less than half a per cent of voters believe that Europe is the most important issue facing Britain today. When asked to select “other important issues” this figure rises to just 3 per cent. For this reason, Cameron was right to tell his party in 2006 that it had to stop “banging on about Europe”. Voters might have shared William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith’s euroscepticism but they didn’t share their fixation with the subject. They were more interested in hearing how the Tories would improve the NHS than how they would repatriate employment powers from Brussels. True, 70 per cent of voters want a referendum on EU membership, but then the polls invariably show majority support for a referendum on any subject. A long debate over EU membership would have seemed eccentric at a time when there are 2.57m people unemployed and the economy is flat-lining.
Cameron should not be absolved of blame for the rebellion. He pandered to the euro fanatics in his party by withdrawing the Tories from the mainstream European People’s Party and forging a sinister alliance with the nationalist right. His aloof and haughty style has alienated many backbenchers. But today my (admittedly low) admiration for him has grown. He has shown that he is prepared to adopt a position – that a referendum on EU membership is not in Britain’s interests – and stick to it. It is he, not his opponents, who has demonstrated political strength.