It is an inevitable consequence of holding a position which requires the constant exercise of judgment that a Prime Minister will make mistakes. So far, David Cameron has embodied the Teflon-like qualities of a successful leader, rather than rushing impulsively to command the news cycle with new announcements and knee-jerk reactions.
His handling of the Fox affair has been a masterful balancing exercise in leadership and loyalty, neither rushing to judgment nor lingering indecisively. Next week all that may change, if the vote on whether to hold an 'in or out' referendum on the European Union causes the first rebellion of the parliament, and an awkward standoff between the cabinet and the back-benches. Euroscepticism is a powerful political movement, and it may yet weaken the Conservative party.
I debated against Nigel Farage earlier this year at the Cambridge Union, where alongside the Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell and Liberal Democrat MP Don Foster I argued that we could have confidence in the coalition because they had the courage to walk the line that they agreed; to stand together in the national interest and form a government. Mr Farage, I perhaps all-too-blithely commented, would never know what it felt like to be more than a spokesman, and thus wouldn't be troubled by the concerns of government. With more than one hundred thousand people signing a petition asking for a referendum, and at last count sixty one Conservative MPs signing the motion in parliament calling for one, the political gift to Mr Farage's UKIP party of the Conservative Party being seen to be abandoning the Eurosceptic cause may be considerable.
The janissaries of the 'no referendum' line being pushed by Cameron, Clegg, and Hague are already bustling into the media. Whether they go at the request of the party, or out of personal motivation, it cannot be easy to argue against a referendum as a Conservative MP. The extremely capable Nadhim Zahawi argued this morning on BBC Radio 4, as Louise Mensch argued all over Twitter on wednesday, that now was not the right time, that there are greater issues at hand.
The discomfort of the Conservative back benches is simple to understand: on the doorstep, talking to voters, it will be difficult for activists and supporters to square the public sentiment with the actions of the government, but the reality is that the coalition is bound together by an agreement, part 13 of which describes the coalition policy on Europe:
The Government believes that Britain should play a leading role in an enlarged European Union, but that no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum. This approach strikes the right balance between constructive engagement with the EU to deal with the issues that affect us all, and protecting our national sovereignty.
We will ensure that the British Government is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners, with the goal of ensuring that all the nations of Europe are equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century: global competitiveness, global warming and global poverty.
These two paragraphs are the argument against a referendum now. They are undeniable, and a political reality. The price of government is compromise, and whilst the short term impact of this position may be to make Nigel Farage's soap-box a little taller, sensible Conservatives everywhere must have patience, and wait for a stronger position from which to challenge the status quo.Suggest a correction