From 2005 onwards, David Cameron flirted with fantasy. He had seen the damage that rows about Europe had inflicted upon the Conservative Party and he wanted no repetition. The less Europe was discussed, the better it would be for his party's prospects. That was true, but irrelevant. Whatever plans leaders may have, Europe has a way of forcing itself on to the agenda. So Mr Cameron has no alternative. It must be confronted.
The latest agenda difficulty is the call for a referendum. When Nigel Farage and Peter Mandelson agree, every sane person's suspicions should be aroused. In his latest column, my colleague Paul Goodman has provided a superb analysis of Mr Farage's strategy. So where does Mandy fit in?
We can best answer that by considering what would happen if there were a referendum next year. All three party leaders would be on the same platform. So, probably, would Alex Salmond. They would all promise a degree of renegotiation, and Mr Cameron would mean it. They would also insist that it would not be in Britain's interests to withdraw. So it would be almost certain that the public would vote to stay in. That would consolidate Britain's membership of the EU – and undermine our bargaining position.
But it would have another dramatic effect. Labour and the Liberals would remain united: the Tories would split. UKIP would have MPs, and a position from which to mount further attacks on the Tory Party. As a result, the next election would almost certainly lead to a Lab/Lib government, entrenching the forces of Europhilia and ensuring that the Eurosceptics would be electorally weakened. There would be no hope in realigning Britain's relations with the EU in our national interest. That is why Lord Mandelson is attracted to a referendum.
Everyone ought to be clear on one point. We cannot vote to leave Europe. It is only twenty miles away. A significant proportion of our economic life – and our hopes for prosperity – are bound up with the European continent. If we could vote to move the UK to another continent, there could be some interesting arguments. But an amputation without anaesthetics from our principal market: that would not be wise. That is why the pro-EU camp would win the referendum and in doing so, amputate bits of the Tory Party.
So what is the alternative? Are we stuck with the EU as it is? Emphatically, no. In the first place, what is it? Today, no-one knows. We do know that Britain is no longer menaced by federalism. We also know that it is Europe's turn to be menaced, by economic stagnation and social instability. In one respect, this is unhelpful; it will make it harder for the British economy to grow. But there are compensations. Although one cannot say when or over what, the EU is bound to run into an iceberg of crisis. When everything is in flux and chaos, we will have a role to play. We want to see a prosperous and democratic Europe, and we may be able to use our influence to help achieve that. We will also have the opportunity to renegoiate. That might well be the moment for a referendum.
I understand and even sympathise with those whose instinct would be to brush aside caution and head straight for confrontation. Over the decades, the Euro-fanatics told so many lies. Their plot to inveigle Europe into a federal Europe was founded on deceit, and on a contempt for the British people's patriotism. Look at the breach of faith which occurred over Lisbon. It is easy to see where the anger comes from; easy to see why a lot of people have come to hate Europe and everything associated with it. But anger is a bad counsellor. There is no alternative; we have to think our way out of this mess.
Moreover, there is an alternative outlet for combative instincts. The European Court of Human Rights requires no subtlety, no tactics, no strategic calculation: no thought whatsoever. It is only necessary to answer one simple question. Are we British fit to make our own laws, or should we subject ourselves to foreign judges? If there were a referendum on the subject, the form of words would no doubt be somewhat different. But the issue is clear.
After 1945, it was easy to understand the attraction of the ECHR to the peoples of continental Europe. In John Hayes's felicitous phrase, they had to reinvent decency. The same was true of the peoples of Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. The others needed it; we did not – and it has now become an infuriating nuisance. A foreign court instructing us to allow prisoners to vote: how dare they, and why do we continue to tolerate their insolence? Righteous Eurosceptic wrath ought to concentrate its fire on that easy target.
As for the complexities of Euro-diplomacy, there is only one sensible response: to move forward with care and to trust the leadership. Since 1975, although mistakes have been made, the Tory Party has been the Eurosceptics' principal asset and the federasts' main obstacle. That is even truer today, now that an architect has converted Ken Clarke, the last important Tory federast, from a threat into an ancient monument. But remember the aftermath of 1997. Tony Blair was trying to summon up the courage to join the Euro. Michael Heseltine, Geoffrey Howe, Ken Clarke and others would have been ready to help him, by disrupting the Tory party. They did not retreat until it became clear that Mr Blair was only interested in carrying out their part of the bargain. Then as today, the Tory Party is the Euro-fanatics' main adversary. That is why Peter Mandelson is ready to ally himself to Nigel Farage. That is why no thoughtful Tory should be led astray by Mr Farage's ambition and Lord Mandy's malice.