I have posted the following question on The Difference (here) who today are putting questions to Caroline Spelman as part of their “Have Your Say” section which is intended for the next issue of The Difference Magazine.

Why has the Conservative party become lukewarm on the issue of the EU Referendum?

This is open goal territory but lately the Conservatives have been conspicuous by their absence.

Is it because this is seen as a win-win situation for Mr. Cameron in that (a) if GB yields on the referendum, he will be seen to be weak and to have given in to the Tories (b) if he refuses he will be seen as a dishonourable shyster, but (c) the Conservatives do not really want a referendum because the result might be such a large majority against the treaty as to raise the whole issue of the principle our membership of the EU all over again, a perceived nightmare the Tories prefer not to contemplate?

At a time when the Conservatives ought to be sensing that Gordon Brown is heading towards a corner into which he can be boxed, they seem unaccountably to have taken their foot off the pedal. The present official Labour position on the referendum is an open goal begging to have lots of balls slotted firmly into the net and one could be forgiven for thinking that there would be Tories, not just backbenchers or the likes of Michael Gove, jostling for position in front of the goal ready to take undefended penalties. Yet I cannot now recall when we last heard William Hague’s unmistakeable Yorkshire burr belting winners over the goal line, nor any of his team. Cameron said something more than a week ago but for the rest, silence. What is going on?

Of course one problem may be that Europe is ‘cold sweat’ territory for the Tories. Though it is now a good while ago, there are plenty around now who recall the days of John Major (the former British Prime Minister with the most well-flexed knees of all time) and his struggles with guerrilla operations from a group of gallant freedom fighters who tried to derail the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

Their blood still runs cold at the thought of any repetition of that episode which did so much to make the Conservative party appear riven with division from top to toe. It is not difficult to imagine that someone who has been so unreliable on the issue of Europe as David Cameron (the party is, after all, still firmly wedded to the Federalist EPP two years after Cameron promised to ditch them) might, given all the other possibilities for splits in his party, opt for a quiet life by formally opposing the Constitution Mark II and making a bit of hay whilst the sun shines but at the same time desperately hoping nothing comes along which forces the dishonourable Gordon Brown’s hand into having a referendum after all.

The fear, one suspects, is this: suppose that the ‘No’ camp (I say ‘No’ but it might be ‘Yes’ depending on how weaselly the question is that the devious Brown and his unctuous little squirt Milliband come up with) wins and wins by several country miles, say 75% to 25% , an exact reverse of the 1975 referendum. Such a huge majority would inevitably raise the issue of whether, on a further referendum, the British people might actually withdraw their whole-hearted consent to being part of the EU racket.

This is what terrifies them so: having one day to go and tell Headmaster Sarkozy and Headmistress Merkel that we won’t be back next term as we have found a better place to go. Since the political elite of this country is so confident that it knows better than the People, fervently believing that the EU is good for us, the prospect of having to carry out the wishes of the People bears too much of the whiff of bitter almonds about it to be in the least bit attractive to them: most, one suspects, would rather undergo a tonsillectomy without anæsthetic on YouTube first.

Still, the news today (here, here, here, and here) that MPs from across the political spectrum are coming together to push for a referendum will hopefully renew the impetus for a cave-in by The Town Rat Catcher. At times like this one begins to sort out the Parliamentary wheat from the chaff to see who exactly has principles to which they are prepared to stick and who does not. Gisela Stuart, Frank Field, Kate Hoey and other Labour MPs who are sticking their heads above the parapet, deserve the admiration of us all, even those of us who would be firmly opposed to the rest of their politics. I, for one, salute them this morning for their integrity and courage.

One takes heart from Michael Gove’s presence amongst this group: he may be a relative newcomer to Parliament but he is Cameron’s man and it is to be hoped that his participation signals that the Conservative party is going to take this seriously. Perhaps too it is a sign that the leadership wants to step back a bit and let more junior MPs make its running, so that they are not seen to try and run a nakedly partisan Labour-bashing exercise and in the hope of capitalizing on the cross-party pressure that is building on Brown. In which case they are wise to do so. Labour MPs will run a mile if Cameron and Hague try to muscle in on this movement.