AS THE conference season drew to an end David Cameron must have taken a deep breath and thought his internal party troubles were over.
The Prime Minister had won standing ovations wherever he went at the Tory conference in Manchester, he had appeared to have appeased the Ukip wing of the party with the promise of a referendum on the EU, Boris Johnson was not the big draw he had been a year before and with Labour leaping dramatically to the left the Conservatives had a real opponent to focus on.
But no. Mr Cameron had barely begun a well-deserved bit of chillaxing between the conference and the start today of the parliamentary session, when the right-wing eurosceptics were at it again.
The would-be leadership candidate Adam Afriyie, the multi-millionaire MP for Windsor, was issuing demands that the referendum on EU membership should be held in this parliament coinciding with the Scottish independence poll. There has been no rush to back up Mr Afriyie’s suggestion, but it does reflect a continued impatience on the Tory backbenches, especially from those who do want the UK out of the EU altogether.
So while the Conservatives should be focusing on a tough election in 2015, which Labour is still favourite to win because the way the boundaries are drawn, the party looks set to be locked into a never-ending civil war on EU membership.
Yesterday’s reshuffles by all three main UK parties in Westminster was supposed to be about the respective leaders reinforcing their positions. The relative low-profile changes for the Conservatives compared to the other two parties suggested that Mr Cameron felt more confident about his authority.
But as every month passes the European issue, and the fact that essentially he wants to remain as part of the EU means he will never be able to have full control over his party.
Last week’s Tory conference was very much overshadowed by the memory of Baroness Thatcher after her death earlier this year. And while many of the things she did as prime minister, including creating the single market and getting the former communist countries of eastern Europe as members, essentially strengthened the UK’s place in the EU, her legacy to the party is her infamous “No! No! No!” to further integration.
From there the party has gone from being completely europhile to eurosceptic and is now almost totally europhobic.
Most of the pretenders to Mr Cameron’s leadership of the Tories offer a way out of Europe, even though the Prime Minister’s position on renegotiation probably reflects the majority of the country.
Ironically, it is this one question which constantly undermines the Conservative leadership that is most likely to make them unelectable as a party of government.