“What would you do,” asks Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, “if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
That is just one of many questions that must be running through David Cameron’s head right about now. Few things in life are certain but one thing you can bet the house on is that the manic fixation that Conservative MP’s have with Europe will, at some point, lead the party to tear itself to shreds.
Take John Major. During the dying days of his premiership, the terminal division over Europe drained the last glimmers of life out of a government that was already on life support.
It led Tony Blair to ask at the dispatch box: “Is it not extraordinary that the Prime Minister of our country can’t even urge his own party to support his position? …. His weakness and his failure of leadership are the reasons his government is the incompetent mess it is.”
He famously summed Major’s position up with one devastating line: “weak, weak, weak!”
Like political groundhog day, Europe is back to haunt the Tories (not that it ever really went away). Following the Queen’s Speech, frustrated Eurosceptic backbenchers have seized their opportunity in the absence of a legislative commitment to hold a European referendum to put the issue at the heart of the political debate.
Their cause has been aided by two senior Cabinet Ministers, Michael Gove and Philip Hammond, who have said they would vote to withdraw Britain from the European Union (no doubt sensing an opportunity to bolster their rightwing support and reaffirm their leadership credentials).
All this has forced David Cameron to publish an eleventh hour draft bill on a European referendum, demonstrating that the Prime Minister’s word is no longer good enough for his own backbenchers (many of whom have been given promises in the past that have failed to come to fruition).
You’ve got to hand it to them. No-one can quite pull off the melodrama that the Conservative Party is capable of. It should be noted, however, that the Prime Minister’s come down over Europe has a much wider significance.
Shortly after becoming leader in 2005, Cameron admitted that the party had alienated voters by “banging on” about Europe. He sought to rectify this by moving the party closer to the political centre and softening their image.
The events of the past few days, coupled with the recent UKIP-induced lurch to the right, demonstrates that despite a few new faces (some of whom, around the fringes, are genuine reformists), the party is still firmly rooted in the past.
Dealing with the Tories is akin to eating a slightly undercooked turkey. You’re OK nibbling around the edges but when get deeper in to it you’re on increasingly dangerous ground.
In short, the re-emergence of Europe, which played a key role in the downfall of the two previous Conservative Prime Ministers, is a tacit recognition that David Cameron’s attempts to rehabilitate the Conservative Party have failed.