Yesterday's Tory backbench rebellion over a referendum on Europe has highlighted again how Conservative leaders seem effortlessly capable of creating a political crisis out of a drama whenever the EU edges to the top of the agenda.
To be sure, none of the three main parties have a consistent or honourable record on the question of a Euro-referendum. Labour and the Liberal Democrats promised to let the people decide on the proposed EU constitution, but swiftly reneged on the grounds that it had been relabelled as the “Lisbon Treaty”. But it is for the Conservatives that this issue is truly toxic. The party is no longer divided between those supportive of the European project and those antagonistic to it, but instead splits fairly equally between renegotiators and withdrawalists. The Prime Minister is therefore sailing in very treacherous waters.
However, he has a couple of things going for him if only he’d realise it.
Firstly, his predictions and fears about the European project over the past decade have been shown to be broadly accurate. In stark contrast, those of us who believed, at the time, that the Maastricht Treaty was a plausible recipe for decentralisation and fiscal prudence have a lot of explaining to do.
The debt and deficit obligations of members of the single currency have effectively only been observed in the breach. Reckless spending by the Mediterranean countries was not brought under control. The commitment to subsidiarity (the idea that decisions should be made at member state rather than European level if at all possible) has been shown to be wafer thin, at best.
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