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Europe and Cameron: A matter of trust

Nick Robinson
Political editor

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Here's a euro paradox for you.

A Eurosceptic prime minister has a furious row with the French president. He declares that he wants to get powers back from the EU.

He has changed the law to ensure that there will be a referendum on any change in Britain's relationship with Europe.

And yet he flies home from Brussels to face a major rebellion from dozens of MPs ready, it seems, to defy a three-line-whip to demand that he has a fight with Europe, gets some powers back and, er, calls a referendum.

What explains this? Simple. A lack of trust.

Many Conservatives do not trust David Cameron. Few trust the coalition. And almost all have no trust in the British establishment which has, for over three decades, told them to shut up and accept that Europe is, like it, loathe it or simply want to change it, Britain's destiny.

That lack of trust has been fuelled by William Hague's conversion from the man who stood up on the back of a flatbed lorry, held up a pound coin and warned that there were just hours left to save the pound to softly spoken diplomat and defender of the coalition who recommends compromise, caution and realism.

'Time for change'

This morning the foreign secretary showed that he is no longer willing to echo, let alone pander to, his party's heart-felt and deep-seated anxieties about Europe when he declared that :

"This is not just something for the House of Commons to put up some graffiti on a Thursday afternoon. This proposition is the wrong question at the wrong time.

"It was not in the manifesto, it cuts right across the rules for holding referendums, it would create additional economic uncertainty. Clearly an in-out referendum is not the right idea."

David Cameron and William Hague and, indeed, George Osborne may be children of the Thatcher era but they all served their political apprenticeships under John Major.

They remember how the former prime minister tried to woo, coax and indulge his euro critics only to end up going to war with those he dubbed "bastards".

They are determined to learn from his mistakes.

Unlike Major they actually agree with most of their party about Britain's future in Europe.

Like him, though, they are trying to manage a coalition - Major's was between angry dispossessed Thatcherites and those who were happy she had been deposed.

Like him, they are not in control of events which are now being driven not just by Britain's EU partners but by the markets as well.

Above all, like him, they have lost the trust of many in a party who want to shout from the rooftops: "We were right about Europe. We've waited too long. It's time for change."

Update, 14:10: As I was saying... George Eustice has just told the World At One on BBC Radio 4 that the government is facing a large rebellion today because MPs do not trust it to deal with the issue.

"What's led to this current problem is a sense that the government don't have any serious intentions of sorting the European Union out. What we need to see from William Hague this afternoon is not the usual lines to take about jam tomorrow and that maybe something will be done in the long-distant future. We need a clear coherent plan now for how the government plans to knock the EU into shape."

However, Eustice will abstain, not vote against the government. That seems to me to be the Whips' greatest hope now ie to convert antis into abstainers.

I, along with others, have made comparisons between the problems David Cameron faces today on Europe and John Major's time as prime minister.

In one respect this is to wildly overstate the significance of the referendum vote and understate the problems the former Tory prime minister faced. Major and his government were almost brought down by Europe, winning a confidence motion by just one vote. On this issue his government did not have a working majority.

David Cameron, on the other hand, will win easily tonight, faces no threat to his position and can govern securely with Lib Dem backing.