David Cameron and the Conservatives have managed to get themselves into a mess over Europe. This comes as no surprise to most of us, as this soap opera has been ongoing since 1972 when Britiain finally joined the Common Market.
This mess is one entirely of Cameron's own making, and could prove very damaging, and does once again raise questions about his judgement. There is a debate tomorrow afternoon on whether there should be a referendum on leaving the European Union. There will be amendments supporting other positions on renegotiation, but the in/out option is what's at the heart of it.
What makes the situation ridiculous is that the debate is on a non-binding resolution, and comes from the backbench committee, because a public e-petition gained over 100,000 signatures.
Cameron has decided to impose a three-line whip (for those not familiar with this, basically it means you need to practically be dead to have an excuse not to vote with the government), which has made the Conservative backbenchers very unhappy indeed.
His problems are complicated by the decision of Ed Miliband to do the same, Labour too has an anti-EU cabal but nowhere near as big, as have the Liberal Democrats. What makes this a problem for the Prime Minister is that it could well be that emboldened by knowing they won't actually defeat Mr Cameron, more Tories may decide to defy the whip, so he wins on opposition support.
Ed Miliband is probably guilty of opportunism here, but Cameron did the same to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, so it's really a case of the biter bit. The Liberal Democrat position is even more bizarre, as they had a referendum in their manifesto, and being clever (something they seem incapable of) could have done the maths, and found they would lose the vote, which would be what they want, but stick to their pledge by voting for a referendum.
David Cameron and William Hague are arguing that a referendum would be a distraction, which may be true to a certain extent, but not as much as an ongoing row over Europe as the party tears itself apart again. They didn't seem to think the AV referendum was a distraction, though getting the Liberal Democrats on board was the intention there.
The judgement of all the party leaders is dubious here, but for David Cameron it is yet more evidence, which continues to mount up. The right of the party will be in the ascendency because they have gained the momentum of a large rebellion, and could well be emboldened enough to start to really push their agenda. It is, therefore, very possible that Cameron will spend the next few years battling his own party, and this will worsen if more questions associated with Andy Coulson arise.
This isn't helped by the economy's stubborn refusal to pick up, as for every step forward it takes (private sector employment seemingly improving, a small growth in retail sales in September), it takes two back (unemployment and inflation rising, growth revised down yet again, and a downgrading of the second quarter figures). The resignation of Liam Fox is another blow, as he is a leading right winger, and in his resignation speech, he avoided mentioning Cameron amongst those who had been supportive. Those such as Peter Bone have felt that Fox shouldn't have had to resign, and this doesn't help Cameron's position with the right of the party.
The pressure on David Cameron is mounting, which makes his decision to impose the whip even more bizarre. He has created for himself a totally unnecessary internal party row, and you have to question his thinking, as it was all so easily avoidable.
The debates which come from the backbench committee are merely an opportunity for the public to get aired issues of concern they have. They do not force the government to follow on, and even if the vote for a referendum won, the government could ignore it, or at best just make a vague promise to bring forward a bill in the future.
As it happens, I think these debates should all be free votes, as they are ones the public want, and it would give MPs an opportunity to show a bit of independence. The party leaders, however, have made their decisions, and all will feel some backlash, but the consequences for Cameron could be politically devastating.
He will now be more worried about his own party than the opposition, and as Caesar and Thatcher have discovered, once you have turned those on your side against you, the consequences can be fatal.