Opinion: Outdated Tories still fighting on EU

As the dust settles on the Conservative showdown, comparisons with the years of division over the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s seem increasingly unfair - unfair on Sir John Major.

David Cameron will be aware that, despite having fewer Conservative MPs than there were during the Major years, he has clocked up more than twice the number of Euro rebels. This has created a massive internal problem, on top of the usual machinations of coalition politics.

The Tories who defied the government whip did so knowing that they would be struck off the list for advancement in a Cameron-led government. If any were unsure of their consequences, a friendly whip was on hand to ram the point home, as Number 10 pulled out all the stops to get people onside.

Yet in the aftermath of a rebellion that encompasses nearly half of Conservative backbenchers, the Prime Minister has ditched cudgel for olive branch in an effort to avoid cutting a big chunk of his party adrift.

The morning after the vote, Education Secretary Michael Gove made the extraordinary declaration that the Conservatives were 'united as never before'

on Europe. Given that 81 of his colleagues had just delivered precisely the opposite message, Gove was either signalling mass capitulation to get the rebels back onside, or showing a Comical Ali-style refusal to acknowledge the scale of the trouble the party is now in.

The main casualty of the affair may be the Prime Minister's desire to be seen as a strong leader in tune with the country's problems. At a time when there is a chronic lack of jobs and economic growth, a party fighting with itself over Europe risks appearing as out of touch as the last failed Conservative government.

Through all this, Ed Miliband deserves credit for ripping up the standard play-book for opposition leaders faced with a sizeable government rebellion.

By voting with the Government and setting the case for leading change in Europe rather than obsessing about an in-out referendum, Labour has increased the pressure on the Government, not lessened it.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown.

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