Tories on Europe: 'United as never before'?

The Conservative party is "united as never before" on Europe. No, really. I just heard it on the radio.

Michael Gove said so on the morning after the night before when almost half of Conservative backbenchers refused to heed the party leadership's pleas on, er, Europe*.

Some will suggest that this proves that Team Cameron is in complete denial. I think it may suggest something more interesting.

The education secretary is not just one of the prime minister's closest friends. He is not just a very clever man. He is a lifelong and instinctive Eurosceptic. I worked with him when he was a young BBC reporter and I know.

Gove's claim was that the Conservative party was united as never before behind the goal of renegotiating Britain's relationship with the EU.

He is right that, providing Ken Clarke is not in the room, Tories can say "we're all Eurosceptics now". What divided them last night was - as I wrote yesterday - trust. Backbenchers do not trust the prime minister, the coalition and Whitehall to deliver.

What Gove may have been suggesting is that Team Cameron should switch from lecturing their party about "obsessing" about Europe and use their supporters, instead, to deliver what he called their "strategic goal" - "bringing powers back".

One problem - that is not the coalition's goal. The agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats simply states that the government should "look at the balance of competences".

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Media captionPolitical editor Nick Robinson analyses the Tories' "party within a party"

So, is Gove now saying that Cameron will pressure the Lib Dems to change his party's position on Europe?

Easier said than done, you might say, but take a look at Paddy Ashdown's intriguing article in today's Times in which he calls on the EU to "rebalance" powers - to interfere less on agriculture and fishing, to "intervene much less in those matters that touch on the services of citizens within their own countries", to enforce the single market less rigidly whilst uniting more on foreign affairs.

That, of course, is much less than most Conservatives want. They want what the prime minister declared yesterday that he wanted - "fundamental reform".

Until he can spell out what that means, how he plans to deliver it and, above all, when - the question Michael Gove repeatedly dodged - he is in for a very torrid time.

* I said on the radio this morning that it was more than half of backbenchers. But sharp-eyed researchers at the BBC have since pointed out that, as well as the 79 backbench rebels (81 Tory rebels in total when you include the two ministerial aides), there were a further two backbenchers who abstained by voting both ways, and another 12 Tory MPs who did not vote at all.

At least three of these were backbenchers intending to abstain on a point of principle, while others - most notably the Foreign Secretary William Hague and junior minister Mike Penning - were abroad on duty.