GIVEN the talk of stalking horses, the poor election results, the backbench rebellions and the not particularly well-hidden ambitions of leading Tories, the interventions by two Cabinet ministers over the weekend saying they support the UK’s exit from the European Union could easily be read as an embryonic leadership challenge.
But while Prime Minister David Cameron’s position as leader of his party is not entirely secure, the statements by Education Secretary Michael Gove and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond on Sunday represented something far more profound.
It is probably fair to say that both Gove and Hammond would one day like to be leader, but both have been loyal to the current leadership and the education secretary has been a key member of the inner circle.
So as the vote on an EU membership referendum looms tomorrow, it will see many Conservative ministers abstain, in other words giving tacit backing to the “rebels”.
What is happening is that the Conservative Party is slowly positioning itself as the nationalist party of the UK seeking separation from the European Union.
There is clearly a nod and a wink to senior members of the party to go out and say they would back an exit. This means that the Tories could be going into the 2015 election not only promising a referendum but in one way or another offering voters a way out.
The fingerprints of Mr Cameron’s Australian strategist Lynton Crosby seem to be all over this approach. He is very much one for asking voters “are you thinking what we are thinking?”
But in truth this is a political victory for the anti-European Union party Ukip and its leader Nigel Farage who have forced the Tories into a situation where simply offering a referendum is no longer enough.
If the Conservatives are to win the next election, then they must prevent a large part of their support transferring to Ukip, which is certainly what happened in the English county council elections earlier this month. A split on the right of British politics leaves the Tories with no chance in the UK general election.
It is still the position of Mr Cameron that he wants to stay in the EU with a re-negotiated, more flexible, deal but he appears to have already lost the argument for this in his own party and must be wondering now whether it could lose him the election.
This explains why he has allowed Gove and Hammond to make calculated interventions on supporting an exit after other senior Tory figures of the past – Lord Lawson, Michael Portillo, Lord Forsyth and Lord Lamont – all called the UK to leave the EU.
Mr Cameron once called supporters of UKIP “closet racists and fruitcakes” but now his party seems to be on the verge of accepting their core position on Europe.