Cameron’s EU turn-around was a grotesque own goal

MP Charles Walker
MP Charles Walker

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If not now, when?’

Having uttered these four words, Conservative MP Charles Walker sat down and immediately went into the record books for making the shortest speech in Commons history.

It came during the debate on the EU referendum, when Mr Walker was one of 81 Tories who defied a three-line whip and delivered a hefty blow which landed flush on the end of David Cameron’s stately nose and put it drastically out of joint.

What deluded sense of primacy possessed the man to turn an internal party squabble into a personal embarrassment? What level of brass-necked hypocrisy was required to order his MPs to vote against the referendum pledge they (and he) had given the electorate at the last election?

Whatever the result of the vote, this was a public argument David Cameron was always going to lose.

It was important, therefore, to find the best way of mitigating the defeat and ensuring it didn’t do permanent damage to his party or his leadership.

He failed miserably on both counts.

Consider these words: ‘If the new prime minister, like us, really believes in power to the people, then he must hold a referendum on the new EU treaty.’

A noble sentiment which could have been addressed to Cameron during this week’s debate. Unfortunately for him, it was a statement he directed towards Gordon Brown in 2007.

Nothing more vividly describes the grubby, unedifying and undemocratic U-turn he performed this week.

In essence, he ordered his back-benchers – on threat of lost preferment – to vote against a principle championed by the party at the last election and elevated to the status of a parliamentary debate by the e-petition initiative launched by their own government. It is difficult to think of a more grotesque own goal.

William Hague – an avowed Eurosceptic – did himself few favours with a display of haughty ambiguity which will have lost him admirers on all sides of the party.

The rift in the Tory ranks has been levered open by Cameron himself – and future leadership rivals Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are doing their best not to appear too grateful.