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PM is weakened by EU diversion

IF David Cameron thinks he can head off growing anger among Conservative backbenchers with yesterday's publication of a draft bill for an in-out referendum on EU membership, he has another thing coming.

It may mean that fewer Eurosceptics vote later today for the amendment criticising the Queen's Speech for failing to address the issue. But if the Prime Minister believes he can stop the EU becoming the dominant political issue of the momenthe is mistaken, because every time he makes a concession to these restless backbenchers they will come back for more. In this respect it is becoming increasingly difficult to resist comparisons between Mr Cameron and John Major, whose government was fatally weakened by splits over Europe.

On his central point, Mr Cameron is quite right. A referendum right now would offer a false choice between the status quo and an immediate exit. The eurocrisis makes EU reform inevitable. This is likely to result in a two-speed Europe with the UK in the outer tier. Until voters know what the future shape of Europe is likely to be, they do not know what they would be voting for. Would British workers be better off if the UK was allowed to jettison the European Working Time directive, for instance?

However, it is the politics behind the current manoeuvring over Europe that is significant. There is a large group of English Tory backbenchers, particularly those whose constituencies have experienced high levels of immigration from Eastern Europe, who have their eyes fixed on the next General Election. They fear the rise of Ukip and want to cash in on anti-EU populism. This has become a cipher for fears about jobs and living standards, even if polls suggest that few voters think their own circumstances have been affected by immigration. Raising EU membership in parliament gives these rebels an opportunity to grandstand on the issue and send a message to voters who have defected to Ukip. Their secondary objective is to force the referendum into the next Tory manifesto.

Also, they want to force the Liberal Democrats and, more importantly, Labour to nail their colours to the mast on an EU referendum. Labour's argument, that instability on Europe undermines efforts to make progress on jobs and the economy, will not be sustainable when the 2015 General Election looms.

The draft bill will almost certainly fail. Even if an anti-EU Tory lands a top slot in tomorrow's ballot for private members' bills and chooses to take it up, it is likely to be talked out on the floor of the House. Besides, if it did reach the statute book, it could not bind the hands of a future Labour or coalition government.

Tory splits on Europe might cut both ways in the Scottish independence campaign. They could be handy ammunition for the SNP, which tries to paint the pro-UK lobby as Tory led. Conversely, a weakened and deeply divided Tory party is less likely to be re-elected, making it more difficult to positthe only alternative to independence as perpetual English Tory rule.

For the Tories, this row is a dangerous distraction from the serious business of putting the economy on its feet. Instead of capitalising on disdain for the EU, this rebellion makes David Cameron look like a weak Prime Minister not in control of his party.

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Local government

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