The scale of tonight’s rebellion is quite remarkable, 43 percent of Tory backbenchers have defied a three line whip—and we are only 18 months into the parliament. Indeed, if you factor in the abstentions more than half of Tory backbenchers rebelled.
This should be a wake-up call to David Cameron. He needs to develop a proper policy for repatriating powers from Brussels, change his style of party management, and reform the Whips office.
This rebellion will encourage the hard-line Euro-sceptics to try again and again. They will reckon, rightly, that as the parliament goes on the number of potential rebels will grow. If they can get this number of rebels in year two of the parliament, imagine how many they’ll attract in 2014 when a whole bunch more MPs have been passed over for promotion. The idea that this vote has lanced the boil, or dealt with the issue of Europe for the parliament is for the birds.
Cameron needs to be ready for next time. The first thing that is going to require him to do is to tell Nick Clegg that the government is going to start developing a full renegotiation strategy. Clegg will object but, with his party at nine percent in the polls, he is not going to bring the government down over this.
Those who doubt that Cameron is prepared to upset his coalition partner should remember how Cameron rolled Clegg over AV when he realised the Tory party would not forgive him for losing. Tonight should make him appreciate that the party also wouldn’t tolerate him missing a chance to refashion Britain’s membership of the European Union if the opportunity presents itself.
Second, Cameron is going to have to develop a better relationship with his parliamentary party. That will require him both spending more time with them and putting better lines of communication in place via a new whips office and at least one new PPS for him.