Shortly before the Conservative party conference last year, the head of the Fresh Start Group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs went in to see the Prime Minister in Downing Street. The group had heard that David Cameron might make his big Europe speech at the gathering and its head, Andrea Leadsom, wanted to set out what to ask for in any renegotiation.

When Leadsom returned from the meeting, her colleagues were desperate to know what the PM had said: which powers did he most want returned from the EU? What would be the centrepiece of his great diplomatic effort? All Leadsom could do was repeat what Cameron had told her: ‘I don’t like shopping lists.’

This sums up Cameron’s attitude towards this renegotiation: announcing it is enough for the time being. When he eventually did make his big Europe speech in January, it contained nothing as clear as a shopping list. There was lots of hifalutin’ language but painfully little detail.

As any shopper can tell you, there’s a danger in heading out without writing down your list: you forget crucial items, buy stuff the family doesn’t need. But Cameron has a further problem. It’s not just that he doesn’t like shopping lists, it’s that he hasn’t even really got one.

When I asked his closest advisers what Cameron wants back from Europe, the reply was that it’d be ‘crazy to reveal our hand before we’ve played this game of European poker’. But when I pressed further, I received a franker answer: ‘That’s what we have to figure out.’ The leadership urges patience, saying that the negotiation position will be ‘described in greater detail come the manifesto’. But if Cameron is to stand a chance in this game of poker, he has to know what cards are in his hand and precisely which ones he needs to pick up.

Of course, the other reason Cameron is reluctant to give any details is his fear that it’ll set off an almighty row inside the Conservative party. Nearly all Conservative MPs can get behind renegotiation. But they want very different things from it.

Downing Street has reassured Europhile ministers that it has limited ambitions: to take back powers on justice and home affairs, agree an opt-out from the working time directive for the NHS and hash out regional policy bits on agriculture and fishing and the Common Foreign and -Security Policy.

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Even if Cameron succeeded in repatriating all of this, it would not transform the nature of Britain’s EU membership, and it’s hard to see it being sufficient for the majority of the Cabinet outers — there are, by my count, at least ten of them. It would certainly not be enough for the prince over Tower Bridge, the Mayor of London. Boris Johnson is now clear that any renegotiation must include a derogation on immigration allowing Britain to limit the rights of free movement for citizens from new EU members states. This is something that the Foreign Office (including those close to the Foreign Secretary) regard as out of the question given the fundamental importance of free movement in the European Union’s founding documents.

It is nigh-on impossible to see the bulk of the parliamentary party rallying behind a deal like this with any enthusiasm. And that’s another reason that No. 10 are reluctant to flesh out any real renegotiation strategy now. They are acutely aware that the party will add more items to any negotiating position. As one insider puts it, ‘They’re terrified of detail.’ Another says irritably, ‘Every time we set out something, they want more.’

No. 10 also know that as soon as they create any kind of renegotiation scorecard they increase the chances of Britain eventually leaving the EU; this country is unlikely to get everything it wants out of any renegotiation. This is a real problem for many inside No. 10, because for them this exercise is about saving Britain’s EU membership.

Downing Street is not as Eurosceptic a place as you would expect given the state of Conservative opinion. There are few people close to the Prime Minister you would call Eurosceptic. His chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, is a personal Cameron loyalist. But intellectually Llewellyn is a Pattenite. He is so close to the former party chairman that he followed him to Hong Kong and Brussels. Tellingly, Chris Patten, one of the most pro-European figures in British public life, let alone the Conservative party, has been one of the grandees that No. 10 have been quickest to call on; they turned to him to rescue the 2010 papal visit, then put him in charge of the BBC Trust. Llewellyn also, understandably, believes that it is his job to make the coalition work. He has better links to the Lib Dems than most Conservatives, having worked for Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia alongside Clegg’s man in No. 10, Julian Astle. He knows that Europe is one of those issues that could break the coalition.

Then there’s the new head of the Downing Street policy unit, Jo Johnson, one of the few pro-Europeans in the most recent Conservative parliamentary intake. While most Tory MPs cheered Cameron’s EU veto in December 2011, Johnson had grave reservations. In private, he has said that it is unreasonable to think that the City can be exempted from European regulation, given that what happens there so affects other EU member states. His appointment to this job is a reminder that you don’t have to be a Eurosceptic to work in Cameron’s Downing Street.

There is no push for Euroscepticism from the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, either. Back in 1997, Hague might have been one of the most Eurosceptic politicians in Britain. But you couldn’t say this today. One Cabinet colleague says exasperatedly, ‘He’s not a Eurosceptic any more.’ Hague’s friends argue that he hasn’t moved his position. This may be true. But the debate has shifted. Out, which used to be a fringe position, is fast becoming a mainstream view in the Conservative party. Tellingly, when Michael Gove and Philip Hammond declared that they would vote out rather than stay in on the current terms, there were no calls for them to be sacked. That Rubicon has now been crossed.

It is this shift that will eventually force Cameron to change his position: no leader can afford to be this distant from the views of his party on the issue that matters to it most. Cameron is a pragmatist and he’ll bring back from Brussels as much as his party forces him to.

At the moment, the Cameroons are whining about the Conservative party being ‘unleadable’. There is much quoting of Cameron’s new favourite columnist, Dan Hodges, a former trade union official who is equally scathing about Conservative backbenchers and Ed Miliband. But even those who are indulging in this pastime know that it is not serious politics: if they really believed the Conservative party was unleadable, they wouldn’t be spending their lives trying to lead it. Instead, they would be off making the easy money that now comes to those who’ve recently served at the heart of government in -Britain.

Downing Street must take a large share of the blame for the difficulties of the past few days. It was political negligence not to have a convincing stance on Europe ready for the aftermath of the County Council elections, considering Ukip were bound to do well. Even before that, No. 10 had failed to build on the Prime Minister’s Europe speech. One loyalist PPS admits, ‘It’s typical No. 10. They do something good but then there’s no follow-up and that creates a vacuum for troublemakers to fill.’

The main thing that Eurosceptic Cabinet ministers want Cameron to do is follow through the logic of his current position and say he’ll advocate leaving if Britain doesn’t get what it needs in the renegotiation. Several of them — backed up by Boris Johnson — have said this to him from the outset. They’ve warned that without this threat, he’ll receive little in any negotiation. They believe that from this position, they can beef up Cameron’s demands. The Prime Minister might not be sure of what he wants, but nearly every Cabinet minister has ideas about what he should want.

But Cameron is wary of doing this for several reasons. First, it would irritate the Germans — who are his best hope of getting a deal in Europe. Angela Merkel has
made it clear she doesn’t appreciate this kind of talk. Her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble took the opportunity of a Commons lunch last Friday with influential Conservative MPs including Jesse Norman, a member of Cameron’s policy board, and Greg Hands, the Treasury Whip, to issue a reminder on this front. Second, Cameron doesn’t want to panic the multinationals. He fears they’d be wary of investing in this country if the Prime Minister put such a question mark against Britain’s EU membership.

Nevertheless, one of those most involved in the Conservative European debate believes it is now 50/50 that Cameron will say this by conference. He’d certainly be well advised to do it before the European elections. If Ukip top the poll then — as Downing Street expect — the pressure on him to say this will be irresistible. The last week should have taught Downing Street that if Cameron doesn’t lead on Europe, events get away from him all too quickly.

What the Conservative party needs to remember is that a referendum is not a strategy. The drama of the last week has all been about process not substance. Far more important than the precise date of the referendum or whether or not it is legislated for in this parliament is what kind of membership of the European Union the Prime Minister is going to try to obtain.

Conservative Eurosceptics should have two aims. First, to ensure that renegotiation and the referendum take place. That’ll require a Conservative Prime Minister after 2015. Second, to ensure that when Cameron heads to Brussels, he knows what he needs to bring home and what is too high a price to pay for EU membership.

Nigel Farage on the view from Ukip — spectator.co.uk/podcast

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: David Cameron, Ed Llewellyn, EU, Politics, referendum. Jo Johnson, UK politics, William Hague