The prime minister was asked in the Commons if he would show some “bulldog spirit” at the weekend EU negotiations. “That’s exactly what I will do,” he insisted.
Yet however the talks are resolved, Cameron seems unlikely to emerge clutching what many of his backbenchers would like to see: the repatriation of various powers such as human rights legislation and employment laws.
That is likely to stoke the internal pressures which were visible in the October Commons debate over an EU referendum, when 81 Tory backbenchers rebelled against the leadership.
Ed Miliband skewered the prime minister over the issue during PMQs, reminding the House that Cameron had promised the repatriation of powers during that debate: “Six weeks ago he was promising his backbenchers a handbagging for Europe, now he’s reduced to handwringing.”
The line is sensitive for the Tory leader as it reflects what many of his rank and file believe. Asked by backbencher Steve Baker whether Britain should simply “leave Europe” – a not uncommon view among Tory MPs - Cameron replied that it was in the country’s interests to stay “in the single market”.
The PM’s pragmatic position was set out at length in a Times article this morning where he warned his own party that there were limits to what he could realistically achieve in the talks that begin in Brussels tomorrow.
His demands would not include repatriation of social or employment laws but would instead be “practical and focused“, he warned. Instead the immediate priority was to drag the single currency back from the precipice: “Our biggest national interest is that the eurozone sorts out its problems“.
That was the line Cameron repeated in the Commons: “The first priority must be that the eurozone crisis, having such a bad effect on our economy, is resolved.” He also hopes to maintain “safeguards” for the City of London.
No doubt Miliband’s private view is that this is the correct approach to take, given that the Labour leader recently told a TV interviewer that he was broadly happy with the extent of EU influence on the UK. But the Labour leader could not resist the political open goal, which he scored with ease.
Cameron meanwhile sought to right back by claiming that if Labour was in charge the UK would now be going to Brussels for a bailout and would be effectively “run by the German chancellor“. There is no doubt, however, that the exchange exposed once again the tensions within the Tory party.
Meanwhile Cameron is facing pressure from another cabinet minister, this time Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson, who has told the Spectator that a referendum on EU membership is “inevitable“.
As James Kirkup writes on his blog, Paterson said:
“If there was a major fundamental change in our relationship, emerging from the creation of a new bloc which would be effectively a new country from which we were excluded, then I think inevitably there would be huge pressure for a referendum.”
Asked if a referendum would be required, he continued:
“I think there will have to be one, yes, because I think the pressure would build up. This isn’t going to happen immediately because these negotiations are going to take some months. But I think down the road that is inevitable.”