Tory backbenchers blew apart the image of party unity over the weekend after it emerged almost 100 had put their names to a letter sent to David Cameron demanding further concessions on Europe - the only problem is the prime minister never received it.
Ninety-five Conservative backbenchers were said to have signed a letter calling for parliament to be able to block any aspect of EU legislation. A demand rejected by the government.
But a Freedom of Information request put to Downing Street by The Times revealed No.10 never actually got the letter. "A search of our records has not identified that we have received the letter to which you refer," an official told the paper. “We do not therefore hold information that falls within the scope of your request."
Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative backbencher who masterminded the letter, told The Times that “the government has not received this letter” but he insisted this did not mean it did not exist.
The revelation that Downing Street never received the letter is a further farcical turn in the story. Jenkin was embarrassed after it was suggested some of the names attached to the letter, including Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury committee, had not actually agreed to sign it.
On Thursday morning Nick Clegg accused the Conservatives of engaging in an "unholy bidding war" with the UK Independence Party over who can sound most anti-European, which could end in Britain leaving the European Union.
The Liberal Democrat leader insisted he will not tone down his party's pro-European message, following a poll suggesting his MEPs are set to be wiped out in this year's elections to the European Parliament, while Conservatives slump to third place behind Labour and the UK Independence Party.
Clegg said it would be "economic suicide" for Britain to quit the EU, and that Tories and Ukip were indulging in "silly political games" which could put millions of jobs at risk.
The YouGov survey for The Sun put Labour on 32% and Ukip on 26%, with the Tories trailing on 23% and Liberal Democrats a distant fourth on 9%.
If the findings were repeated on May 22 with a uniform swing, they would see Conservative representation at the European Parliament slashed by 11 to 15 MEPs, while Labour would have 28 (up 15), Ukip 23 (up 10), and the Lib Dems would lose all of their 11 MEPs, according to The Sun's calculations.
Senior Tory Liam Fox said it was in the national interest to have a debate about Europe, rather than a Conservative response to the electoral threat from Ukip.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "I don't think we should be defined politically by anybody else; we need to have this debate because the country needs to have the debate."
Dr Fox said voters would see the European elections as a "referendum on a referendum" and "pretty much anything could happen".
He said: "Anything can happen in elections but I think it's very important that the Conservative Party is defined by the national interest, that we decide that we have to have a rational and reasonable debate about our role in Europe and our role in the world and also Europe's role in the world because one of my biggest problems in this debate is not just that it's about Britain's relationship with Europe, it's where does Europe now stand in terms of a very competitive global economy."
He added: "There's only one party in this country that can guarantee the people of this country will get a referendum on the European Union and that is the Conservative Party.Suggest a correction