The battle lines in the Tory party over Europe are being drawn up, and today, Minister without Portfolio Ken Clarke, at the launch of the cross-party campaign for British Influence through Europe, nailed his colours once again to the mast.
As one of my four million constituents here in the East Midlands, I’m always interested in what Mr Clarke has to say, not least on European matters. And when he describes a British exit from Europe as a “fatal mistake”, for example, you won’t find me disagreeing with him.
However, one or two of his remarks call for rather greater examination.
He suggested in his speech that there were only around 30 Tory MPs who want to come out of Europe come what may, a figure, he suggests, similar to those who were against Ted Heath signing up in the first place.
Eyebrows will be raised at this figure. There is little doubt that the Tory party today is for more Eurosceptic than it ever has been. And if he’s right, and the vast majority of David Cameron’s MPs are in favour of staying in Europe, they need to stand up and be counted, along with leaders of industry and others.
And what happens when Cameron comes back empty-handed from his “renegotiation” with the other 26 member states? Or returns with less than many in his party want? Will it be only 30 MPs wanting out then? Where exactly is the Tory sticking point?
These are the questions which will be debated and argued over the next five years, hence the danger that this promise of a referendum on an unknown question, after an unknown negotiation, following an unknown election result, is such a distraction from the real matters in hand of getting Europe back to work and on the path to growth again.
The other comment made by Mr Clarke today which many will question is the idea that it is “inconceivable” that David Cameron could come back from Europe recommending a “no” vote. The Prime Minister has painted himself into such a corner in order to appease his backbenchers, that it is not inconceivable at all.
As Ed Miliband and others have made clear, the debate and the decision about a referendum on Europe is not about what is best for Britain. It is a power struggle within today’s Conservative party and more broadly the right wing in UK politics, particularly the UKIP threat.
Ken Clarke chose his words carefully; nevertheless, they were a shot, only very mildly coded, across David Cameron’s bows.