The debate and vote on the back-bench motion on a referendum on British membership of the European Union was always bound to be lost despite any back bench Tory rebellion. Although both the Lib Dem and Labour parties are committed to allowing a referendum they will both be whipped to vote against one, so there was no risk to the Prime Minister. Unhappily for him, Mr Cameron’s decision to impose a three line whip instructing all Tory MPs to vote to deny the electors their say is more likely to achieve no more than a marginal increase in his majority, but at the price of a needless sense of anger and bitterness in the Conservative Party.
That bitterness will not be confined to the Parliamentary Party. It will be felt just as strongly among the party’s grass roots. Membership of the voluntary party is in terrible decline. Its members cannot be intimidated by three line whips in Westminster and they will simply walk away.
In Parliament it is another matter. The likely offenders have already been told that a failure to obey orders would prejudice their careers. Indeed with reselection looming for many as a result of the reduction in the number of Parliamentary constituencies they risk having Central Office working to get them ousted in favour of more supine and obedient folk.
There is however another side to the coin. Sooner or later Mr Cameron will retire from his leadership of the Party. Who will then look more likely to provide the leadership the Conservative Party will need? One of the timorous sheep who were suckered with half promises of preferment for good behaviour and whipped into line? Or will it be one of the young lions who defied the threats and ignored the half promises from their whips?
Where there may be a silver lining is in the contest for nominations in good Tory seats, if the boundary changes happen. MPs such as Zac Goldsmith, Phil Davies and Priti Patel will have a powerful appeal to activists on selection committees when they say they have and will continue to put their constituents and their country before their party. Others from well outside the circle of the usual suspects like Bill Cash and John Redwood such as David Nuttall and Douglas Carswell will gain public credibility and Graham Brady should have a safe seat as Chairman of the 1922 Committee for his role in standing up against ill-judged whipping.
The Prime Minister really must start to think things through before indulging in gesture politics. Not even Ted Heath faced the Chairman of the 1922 Committee voting against a three line whip.