Straight after David Cameron’s speech last January committing himself to renegotiation and a referendum, I asked one Tory minister what he made of it. He chuckled and said that Cameron must be planning to stand down after the next election. The point behind this joke was that renegotiation and the referendum itself would expose every Tory division on Europe there is. Once the renegotiation was under way, he argued, it would no longer be possible to gloss over the fact that Cameron means something different by renegotiation than much of his party.
William Hague’s reaction to the Bernard Jenkin letter, which has been doing the rounds of Tory backbenchers since before Christmas, has begun to expose these divisions. To the Foreign Office, Hague and Number 10, the backbencher’s demands are simply incompatible with EU membership.
This whole episode is another reminder of just how difficult it will be for any Tory leader to keep the Tories even vaguely unified come the referendum campaign. But the more immediate danger for Cameron is that Tory MPs start asking more and more questions about the renegotiation plan and are more and more disappointed by the answers. This combined with the European elections in May could lead to a bout of Tory in-fighting over Europe with less than a year to go to the general election.