Everybody's talking 'bout the bad old days.
These comparisons can obviously only go so far. Unlike John Major, David Cameron was not within a couple of votes of losing his job last night. He also helms a party that far from flat-lining in the polls continues to trail Labour by only a few points, still maintaining a solid if finally beginning to decline lead on the economy. Last night's rebellion was, in these terms, merely Cameron's first parliamentary encounter with those backbenchers who seem to be under the illusion that if only Britain could shake itself free from the shackles of European red tape and regulation we would in no time be, if not ruling the waves again, then at least doing nicely for ourselves like Norway.
Cameron's problem is that like the Tory leaders who preceded him he encouraged much of this sentiment, repeatedly lambasting Labour over their dropped promise to hold a referendum on the European constitution. The difference is that unlike Hague, IDS and Howard, he then went one step further and in the Tory manifesto promised that upon any proposed further transfer of power to Brussels, a referendum would be held first. This looked to be a clever buying off tactic initially: not only would it make up for deciding not to reopen the sore over the constitution should the Tories come to power, but it would also strengthen the British bargaining position. With it looking distinctly unlikely that any new legislation resulting in power flowing to Europe was imminent, it also seemed it would never have to be put into practice. Cameron and his advisers didn't however bargain on needing to go into coalition; what should have kicked the issue into the long grass has instead simply resulted in the Eurosceptics pushing for more, angered and bitter over the Lib Dem "brake" on Conservative policy.
The petition on a referendum was then just a happy coincidence, as it's been clear for a while that some kind of issue would be found on which the Tory right could make a stand. That it has been on Europe, and that Downing Street has supposedly been both "heavy-handed" and "weak" has (to go Shaun of a Dead for a moment) exacerbated things. Cynical as it is, the argument from Cameron and Hague is absolutely right: this is an insane moment to call a referendum on membership of the EU, at the exact time that more than anything the Eurozone needs support and we, in turn, need the trade the current system guarantees and will guarantee. A referendum on EU membership at some point is necessary, if only to clear the air on this most stultifying of issues. Moreover, despite the polls currently suggesting that a vote would result in us leaving the union, we should remember that there was a similar majority in favour of AV to begin with. A hopeless yes campaign aside, it's apparent that unless there's a compelling case for a change to the status quo then it will end up being rejected. Apart from the monomaniacs, little Englanders and tabloids, there are few that want to leave the EU who don't already oppose it on an almost atavistic level.
More immediately worrying for Cameron is that this further threatens the already tenuous detoxification programme he and George Osborne (snigger) have attempted to lead. Among those who continue to pay attention when such a terminally boring topic has returned to politics (and that's as much the reason why the public have always hated the splits in the Tory party when it's over something so seemingly banal and dry) will only see already pompous blowhards be even more pompous and self-regarding than usual. Voters do take notice when someone resigns over a principle, but not if it's over having a referendum right now and it's someone they've never heard of; making such a ridiculous song and dance over it as some in the party did yesterday just results in a rolling of eyes. Ridiculous also perfectly describes Jacob Rees-Mogg, who seems determined to bring down his party from within by just being himself. Likewise, other members of the Tory right, whether they be Andrea Leadsom with her extraordinary call for sex education in schools to be opt-in rather than opt-out, Priti Patel's eyes through the fingers performance on Question Time, or Liam Fox's close to being unbelievable arrogance in his resignation statement, are not going to do anything to help a party increasingly seen as out of touch.
Gaddafi's death certainly helped to distract attention away from that particular unpleasantness. Using the passive once again, Fox accepted it was a mistake for "distinctions to be blurred", while the ministerial code had been found to "have been breached", not had been breached. There was no apology, just acceptance; and then the media, for daring to investigate those breaches, was assaulted and accused of hounding people when they almost certainly hadn't. His wife had dealt with the problems brought on by her husband with her usual grace and dignity, while he just continued to act as he always has, with bumptiousness and pathetic self-indulgence. If a Labour politician had acted in such a fashion, especially during Gordon Brown's time, then the right-wing press would have gone ballistic.
Credit then to Nick Clegg for speaking up on the "tilting at windmills" of the Tories. As Reuben points out, the real reason behind the split is partially down to the majority of large businesses, while not being overwhelmingly happy at the situation, favouring the security which the EU brings, even if that isn't the situation at the moment. They're very partial to the idea of repatriating the worker friendly social and employment laws membership of the EU has required implementing, but not a complete divorce as increasing numbers of Tory MPs want, and indeed would be the main campaign aim should a referendum take place. Even this though, happily, is unlikely to happen, not least because for the moment the Lib Dems are blocking any attempt at a renegotiation.
This is what Labour and Ed Miliband should be pointing this out, time and again: that the real reason the Tories are currently so opposed to the EU is not due to the open market it provides or the policy of open borders that led to the immigration wave after the accession states joined, nor the corruption, scandal of the budget, bureaucracy or loss of power from parliament, but because of such outrageous legislation as the Working Time directive. One thing is clear: the fabric holding together the coalition is starting to fray.