Twenty years ago, almost to the month, John Major was forced to spell out in the House of Commons the benefits of Britain's continued membership of the European project.
As arguments raged over the Maastricht Treaty that would set out the EU's route map towards the euro, the then prime minister accepted there were concerns over the centralisation of powers in Brussels, the spiralling EU budget and the ability of bloated European institutions to deal with financial instability in the light of Britain's withdrawal from the ERM weeks earlier. But Major insisted, to the chagrin of many of his backbenchers, that "a confident and successful community is a vital interest of this country".
Today many of the same issues clamour around the current prime minister as he prepares for this week's budget negotiations in Brussels. For Major, his reluctance to comply with the wishes of the so-called euro-sceptic "bastards" in his cabinet, and in his wider party, came to define his premiership. Europe split his party and ultimately wrecked his period at Number 10, as he struggled to keep the UK "at the heart of Europe" while at the same time negotiating opt-outs from its core projects, including the yet-to-be-born single currency itself. Then, as now, the prime minister tried to strike the difficult balance of being in Europe but not run by Europe.
Cameron is by instinct more eurosceptic than the country's previous Tory prime minister. But these days that brings him little protection from his own, ever more anti-EU, party. Last month 53 hardline eurosceptic backbenchers, backed by Labour, defied Cameron and publicly voted in favour of an effective cut in EU spending for the next seven-year budget round. Cameron had wanted to negotiate this week for a freeze in real terms, which would have been hard enough to achieve. But by ordering him to go much further a large section of his party is sending him to Brussels to perform a mission impossible.
Two decades on from Maastricht, the passion that Europe excites inside the Tory party is of a similar intensity. Last week the former EU commissioner Peter Mandelson recalled how Cameron, during a meeting between the two men in Brussels a few years ago, had had two striking observations to make on Europe. One was that it should stop constitutional navel-gazing and the other was that, if you put two Conservatives in a room, it is not long before they will fall out over Europe.
But the argument has moved on. In Major's day the eurosceptics were passionate about stopping the EU eroding British sovereignty while pro-European cabinet ministers such as Ken Clarke insisted they had little to worry about. There was rarely any serious talk of the UK getting out of the union altogether. Today – after the euro crisis – it is different. Tory eurosceptics, and much of the country, are not just expressing discontent with the direction in which the EU is moving. More and more actually want to leave. Our Opinium/Observer poll gives an extraordinary snapshot of hardening views against membership. Some 56% of people now say they would vote to leave the EU if they were given the chance in a referendum; 68% of Tory supporters would vote to leave – but more remarkably perhaps, 44% of Labour voters and 39% of Lib Dems would choose to leave.
Cameron does not want to be the prime minister who calls a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU and then leads us out. If he agreed to a national vote, he would have to campaign to remain inside. But a large section of his party and the public is rapidly heading in the other direction. Mark Reckless, the Tory MP who led the EU rebels in the recent parliamentary vote, made clear to the Observer that the row over the EU budget was not simply a matter of pounds and euros but would prove to be a precursor to a debate over whether the UK should be part of the European project at all.
The current crop of "bastards" seems determined to pursue, ruthlessly, that objective no matter what embarrassment or damage it may cause their leader.
Reckless said he did not believe Cameron could return to the Commons and win approval for anything less than a real terms cut in the budget. "Parliament voted in clear majority against that inflationary increase or so-called real terms freeze," he said. "It sent a clear message that, if the prime minister went and achieved his very modest objectives on that, it wouldn't be acceptable to parliament. He would need legislation to do that, and it would be defeated on the floor of the house."
He added that the parliamentary vote was about a rejection of the EU as a whole. "I think there is now a clear majority, in almost every opinion poll, who want to come out. And for a very long time that view hasn't been represented in parliament, but for the first time two weeks ago we had a eurosceptic majority in the lobbies to cut the EU budget. People understand that much more when it is about money rather than about an institutional point."
So, if Cameron fails to veto an inflation-linked budget rise, Reckless believes that parliament will do it for him. He believes the rebellion in that event will be greater than last time round. "I'm pretty confident that the number of people that we will add to our tally of 53 will be greater than those we lose the other way.
"So, if Labour stick with their position, I don't think the prime minister can get that real terms freeze which is his objective through parliament, so he is between a rock and a hard place.
"Ultimately, if there is no EU agreement here, there will be no EU budget.
"It will develop, I guess, into a situation where there is a parting of the ways, and we really have to decide whether we stay part of it – and they really have to think, are they going to operate without a budget because of their failure to come to terms with the UK?"
Even the likes of the veteran euro-sceptic Bill Cash – the scourge of John Major over Maastricht – would have steered clear of talking publicly about a British exit from the European Union 20 years ago. What was once beyond the pale has become the battle cry of the Tory backbenches.
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