PMQs verdict: Tories unite in cheering EU-slayer Cameron home
David Cameron's Europe speech has had an electric effect on the Conservative party. This might just prove to be the PMQs which pushes the Tories over the line in 2015.
What unites all MPs more than anything else is their desire to keep their seat at the next general election. Most Tory backbenchers have had to win and hold on to their seats in spite of Europe, which has seen their party forced into equivocation for decades. Not so today. After David Cameron's EU speech this morning, fundamentally reworking the terms of the debate until 2015 and beyond, the relief in the Commons chamber was palpable. For years it was unthinkable. But now, thanks to the marvellous brinksmanship of their leader, the Tories can finally agree on Europe.
You could see the thought process running through their heads. They have managed for years with this massive division lurking somewhere near the heart of the party. Think of the places they'll go without it hanging around their necks. Might an overall majority be achievable in 2015, after all?
After spending the morning getting more and more worked up, Tory MPs left their offices in parliament and hurried into the chamber to, in the words of one backbencher, "cheer the prime minister".
They cheered Cameron when he entered the chamber and again when he was called on to speak. They cheered him whenever a Tory MP stood up to congratulate him once again. They cheered him repeatedly during his exchanges with Ed Miliband, who was forced by the sheer weight of events to concentrate on an issue that now puts his party in jeopardy. Just as Tory MPs will now find it easier to hold on in 2015, and for their party colleagues to make gains and push towards an outright majority, so Labour is in a deep fix. It is the opposition which has the biggest headache now. Something else for Tory MPs to cheer about.
Everyone present could sense a real shift is taking place. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, is among those responding by having kittens after this morning. "Imagine the EU was a football club: once you've joined up and you're in this club, you can't then say you want to play rugby," he complained. Cameron has not so much removed the goalposts as had them shipped off to the next city. As Eleanor Laing pointed out, at the next election a clear message can be sent to voters: "If we have a Conservative government, they will have their say."
Not so for Labour. Miliband struggled throughout. He was forced into accusing Cameron of "running scared of his party", which has been true for many years and will certainly have prompted this repositioning. But, just as it feels much better to just be sick and get it over with, so the prime minister has gone through the painful bit and can now relax. He poured relentless pressure on the Labour leader, who clearly said he would oppose an in-or-out referendum. That isn't going to go down well with voters, as uproarious Tory MPs quickly realised. Maybe Cameron didn't spot the admission, because he continued to hammer Miliband about his inability to make up his mind. The truth is there remain big question-marks about Labour's position. "He needs to go away, get a policy, come back and tell us what he wants," Cameron smirked. Rarely has the prime minister been so completely dominant.
The Tory backbenchers have muttered and grumbled for years over Europe. They have defeated Cameron in two humiliating Commons votes. Today they turned up to fete their leader, to praise him for bowing to their will. The Liberal Democrats, who may not even be around as a significant entity after 2015, appeared to fade into the background today. Only Sir Menzies Campbell, the venerable and respected former leader, was able to make any kind of impact. Might the PM be interested in getting infamous Tory Europhile Michael Heseltine to conduct an inquiry into the consequences of Britain leaving the EU, he suggested? Cameron smiled. "In the interests of coalition harmony, I think we'll leave that to one side," he replied. Nick Clegg, whose stolid impassiveness has made PMQs a five-year exercise in Xen-like calm, emerged from his meditation to state firmly: "Well said."
This was a prime minister's questions in which one of British politics' biggest issues shifted, perhaps decisively. Gerald Howarth praised Cameron's "landmark speech". Graham Stuart said it showed the Tories liked to "go into bat for Britain". Crispin Blunt went furthest of all, citing William Pitt the Younger's famous quote about Europe not being saved by any one man. Cameron at risk of "contradicting Pitt", he suggested. Forget vanquishing Napoleon; the Tory leader, once despised by eurosceptics, is now the anointed saviour of a continent. Not an everyday transformation – but then, this was not an everyday PMQs.