David Cameron once rebuked his party for “banging on” about Europe, but the issue never ceases to give Conservative prime ministers a headache.
First, the important stuff. Mr Cameron and Barack Obama used a video conference on Thursday evening to impress upon Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel the need to sort out the eurozone crisis with a comprehensive package: the clock on that deal is now ticking.
Ms Merkel has told Mr Sarkozy she won’t be able to sign up to any deal until next Wednesday at the earliest, so a special second meeting of eurozone leaders has been fixed in Brussels for that day.
Of course Mr Cameron won’t be invited to that meeting, but it could still be awkward for the PM. As European leaders grapple with the economic fire raging across the English Channel, Mr Cameron will be heading to the other side of the world for a Commonwealth summit in Perth.
Not only will communications be difficult because of the time difference, but so is the symbolism. Mr Cameron has been accused by Labour of failing to get involved in helping to resolve the eurozone crisis – Gordon Brown’s expertise was regularly sought by single currency leaders – so his presence in Australia may add to the perception that he is firmly on the margins.
Before he heads to Australia, Mr Cameron also has to contend with a mutiny by – possibly – scores of Tory MPs who want a referendum on Europe. The prime minister’s aides despair at the Tory party and its willingness to engage in what Mr Cameron regards as “a massive distraction”: a debate on Monday on a national referendum on the EU. We wrote this morning that five ministerial aides (PPSs) could resign.
Mr Cameron has been advised by some – including Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary – to back off from a showdown with the rebels, but he seems determined to impose a three line whip.
Amendments suggesting a white paper on the division of powers between Britain and Brussels have been suggested, but coalition insiders say: “That is not government policy.” Expect serious dissatisfaction with the PM to surface in the Sunday newspapers.