David Cameron has spent the afternoon explaining to many of his annoyed backbenchers why he won't allow a referendum on Britain's future place in the EU to take place now, as a senior Labour MP has accused the prime minister of "sounding more like John Major every day".
Cameron told the Commons that now was not the time for an in/out referendum, and also batted away repeated calls from backbench Tories for legislation to be passed in this Parliament enshrining in law a referendum for after the general election.
"As Europe changes to meet the challenges of the eurozone so our relationship with Europe will change too," said Cameron. But on the calls for a straight in/our referendum the PM said: " I don't agree with that, because I don't believe leaving the EU would be best for Britain."
Earlier in the day Des Swayne, Cameron's parliamentary aide, sent an email to all Tory MPs saying : "Colleagues, Ed [Miliband]’s main effort is to engineer blue on blue. Let’s not help him."
Cameron insisted he wouldn't spell out a timetable for a referendum, or what the question would be, saying: "Far from ruling our a referendum in future, we should consider how best to get the fresh consent of the British people."
Peter Hain's reference to former prime minister John Major evoked the kind of internal rows within the Conservative Party which almost fatally undermined the government in the early 1990s.
Major struggled to control his backbenchers, who took a far harder line on Europe than the then-prime minister did.
Labour leader Ed Miliband accused Cameron of being all over the place on Europe, telling the Commons: "Three days, three positions. First it was no, then it was yes, then it was maybe.
"It's all about managing the divisions in his own party," Miliband said, to Labour cheers. "Five years ago he said he said his party should stop banding on about Europe, now he's the one banging the drum."
Aware of backbench discontent on the issue, Cameron's parliamentary aide Desmond Swayne emailed Tory MPs to ask them not to help Miliband divide the party by engaging on "blue on blue", or friendly fire, attacks over Europe.
Tory MP Conor Burns - who reportedly wrote to the prime minister last week urging Cameron to outline in terms the details of an in/out vote - said the public was "heartily sick of broken promises on referendums," and suggested tabling one would strengthen the PM's negotiating hand when dealing with other European leaders.
"I do there think there is some merit in this argument," replied Cameron. "The problem is because the change in Europe is happening so rapidly, It would be quite difficult to predict what will happen."
Cameron said his approach was characterised by "tactical and strategic patience," but he continued to face continued questions from strongly eurosceptic Tories about when and how the referendum should take place.
The session in the Commons followed a blistering attack on Europe earlier on Monday by former defence secretary Liam Fox, who suggested that withdrawal from the EU might have to be considered, if Britain wasn't able to renegotiate the terms of its membership.
The speech was seen as a return to front line politics by Dr. Fox, who resigned in the wake of the scandal involving Adam Werritty in 2011.
Fox told reporters that while he strongly favoured a referendum, he didn't see the case for one taking place now. "I too believe that a referendum will be vital but I believe that having one now would be a huge error with enormous tactical risks," he said.
"It is not a coincidence that some convinced euro-enthusiasts support such referendum calls, confident that a scare campaign based on false fears of political and economic isolation would win the day."
Fox said Britain should negotiate a "new relationship" with the EU based on "economic rather than political considerations" followed by a referendum to allow voters to agree to the new set up.
The government insists that Cameron has not flip-flopped over a European referendum, saying that the PM hasn't U-turned on an in-out referendum.
Cameron has been accused of prevaricating because he appeared to rule out an in/out referendum on Friday, only to suggest some kind of national poll on Europe could take place on Europe just two days later.