NO-ONE put out the flags for Europe on New Year's Day.

For one reason or another, few of those liable to remember the significance of the date were inclined to make a fuss. For all that, January 1 marked the 40th anniversary of the day when Britain, along with Ireland and Denmark, joined the old European Economic Community.

They have not been exactly glorious, those 40 years. No sooner was Britain in the club after a decade of trying than doubts, arguments and dissent began to be heard, from left and from right. Four decades later, just before Christmas, an ICM/Guardian poll found that 51% of those asked would definitely or probably vote to leave the European Union, given the chance.

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That's the reality few political leaders want to discuss, David Cameron least of all. His party is the most viscerally eurosceptic of them all. "Europe" is red meat to Tory backbenchers and manna for UKIP, that recycling bin for Conservative grudges. And didn't Mr Cameron promise them their referendum, once upon a time?

Polls have become consistent on that topic, too. Eurosceptic, Europhile, confused or apathetic, most voters believe a referendum should be held. Last summer, a Populus survey for a London-based newspaper found that 82% of those asked wanted a vote either immediately or within the next couple of years. Popular democracy, like virtue, never goes out of style. That doesn't answer the question of the question.

Tory sceptics have been hard at work. For the avoidance of doubt – as Mr Cameron might say to a First Minister – a referendum question has to be clear and unambiguous. Where the EU is concerned, sceptics say, voters must be given a simple choice: in or out? At the very worst, according to those who purport to support their Prime Minister, a stark challenge would "strengthen his bargaining position".

Mr Cameron is not entirely foolish. He senses the trap laid by those whose obsession with Europe is tangential to reality. They refuse to recognise the difference between shades of public opinion and Daily Mail editorials. They refuse to remember that "Europe" is low on voters' lists of important issues, that it does the Tories more harm than good in elections, that – if you dig into the numbers – it counts most among English Conservatives who are not as young as once they were.

The polls are probably right, nevertheless. An "in/out" referendum could well lead to Britain quitting the EU, if such a thing as Britain still exists to make the choice, come the day. But Mr Cameron doesn't want that choice. He does not want 2013 to mark the beginning of the end for the UK, in whatever form, in Europe. He can throw uncooked mince to the back-benches with the best, but he truly seeks what all Prime Ministers seek: the best deal he can get.

The sceptics want to box him in. The 17 eurozone countries, working to shore up their battered currency, want to tie him down. Mr Cameron has therefore resorted to veto politics, or at least to the threat of veto politics, first to "protect the City of London" – not a vote-winner, necessarily – then, last November, during the EU budget row. These were tactics, of a kind, but not a strategy.

Speaking on the BBC's Radio 5 Live yesterday, Mr Cameron promised that voters will be given "a real choice" – but not this side of an election – on Britain's relations with the EU. He did not reject an in/out referendum, but said: "I don't think it's right to aim for a status like Norway or Switzerland where basically you have to obey all the rules of the single market, but you don't have a say over what they are".

He has a speech to give later this month in which his big idea, whatever it is, will have to be spelled out. The best bet is that he will attempt to repatriate certain powers as his price for agreeing to treaty changes, especially those involving the supervision of national budgets, designed to stabilise the single currency. But a new deal for Britain would also mean treaty alterations, and those would require the unanimous agreement of other EU members.Mr Cameron could emerge with some big prize to satisfy his sceptics, perhaps the power (and God help us) to reclaim control over social welfare. Equally, the eurozone countries could refuse his every demand and press on with their restructuring plans informally, avoiding the need for Britain's agreement. Then what? The referendum Mr Cameron doesn't want, setting the Tories against their Liberal Democrat partners once and for all?

No-one these days bets on Nick Clegg to hold the line on anything, but you never know. The real point is that the Prime Minister – along with George Osborne, his Chancellor – wants a City-friendly restructuring of Britain's EU membership without resort to the nuclear option of withdrawal. That might not be possible.

The headlines say that Britain is increasingly sceptical towards "Europe". The reality of the ICM poll is that 36% of respondents "definitely" want to quit the EU. The number is driven, meanwhile, by the 57% of Tory voters who are liable to vote for withdrawal. Of that number, 41% are "definite" eurosceptics. They, in turn, are older, English, predominantly C2 "skilled manual workers", and drawn from the south of the island.

Young Conservatives, interestingly, are less hard-line. The Scots and the Welsh, though barely canvassed, are less susceptible to eurosceptic passions. On tiny national samples, ICM noted only 26% of Scottish C2 respondents determined to quit the EU. "Europe" is a Tory thing, after all. Where voters in Scotland are concerned, the fact tends to settle all arguments.

Mr Cameron knows this. He also knows that the demand for repatriated powers through a referendum – or reclaimed independence, indeed – has a different resonance, let's say, in different places. Even in British terms, a poll finding that 36% would "definitely vote to leave" the EU is hardly a damning indictment of the union. The euro has endured the most hellish time imaginable, amid a chorus of contempt from the Tory press, and a vote for withdrawal might, just might, muster only 51%?

Not for the first time, a section of the Conservative Party is inflicting its ancient grudge against all things European on Westminster politics. That sect is looking forward eagerly to 2013. Mr Cameron, who pandered to euroscepticism while seeking leadership, who has convinced sceptics ranged around his Cabinet table, deserves no sympathy. He refuses to choose, and refuses to be honest about his refusal.

The EU is a partnership, or it is an enemy. Those are the crass terms in which the debate is set by Mr Cameron's party, but they'll do. What the sceptics fail to explain, after all, is their alternative. What do they really want, "liberated from Brussels"? A land fit for Tory government? A Britain safe for the banks, stripped of social protection and rights, a haven for tax-dodging corporations unfettered by notions of equity? Perhaps we could hold a referendum on that.

When such things come disguised as patriotism, scoundrels are at work. Mr Cameron offers the worst of both worlds, tantalising his malcontents and preaching the national interest simultaneously. This year, finally, the game will be up.