By Joseph Willits
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There were two crucial questions being asked earlier today in anticipation of Cameron's EU treaty veto debate. Firstly, how would Tory €urosceptics react to Cameron's veto? Would their jubilance be muted, or forthright and buoyant? Secondly, after hearing of Nick Clegg's bitter disappointment yesterday, people were waiting with baited breath for the Liberal Democrat reaction. What would be the reaction from them?
It would have proved slightly anti-climatic to some then, that the Deputy Prime Minister was not in attendance. For others it heightened the sense of mystery and conspiracy that Clegg was sulking. As soon as the debate began, Labour backbenchers were chirping and smirking simultaneously. "Ou est Clegg?" they chorused. It was discovered that he felt he would be too much of a "distraction", and decided to stay away. Iain Watson of the BBC remarked that "over the weekend Lib Dem aides said Nick Clegg would have no difficulty sitting beside the PM and was used to having every facial expression analysed". Today, Clegg's face was not up for scrutiny in the Commons although the Deputy PM did find time for a Sky News interview. The questions of his whereabouts never stopped, with an exasperated Cameron responding:
"I'm not responsible for his whereabouts but I'm sure he's working very hard."
Former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell congratulated Cameron on his "unequivocal statement" which had outlined the benefits of EU membership, asking for other Tories to share this sentiment. As the BBC's Nick Robinson pointed out, however, "Sir Menzies might have been expected to be rather more critical if, that is, he hadn't been asked by Team Clegg to take to the airwaves on Friday morning to greet the deal as "inevitable".
Other Liberal Democrats were more critical of Cameron, notably Jo Swinson who accused him of "rushing for the exit" rather than negotiating properly,
James Forsyth wrote earlier that "Tory MPs are being urged to be calm and forensic" and will be given their opportunity to "thump the desks and be rude about the EU without worrying about what their coalition partners might think" at the later 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.
There remained, for the most part, restraint from the Tory backbenches. Harsh words did come from Nadine Dorries however, who labelled the Lib Dem position as "cowardice", which had only been "surpassed by the absence of the Deputy PM in the chamber today". Dorries was glowing in her praise of Cameron, as was Mark Pritchard, but at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. "Better to be a British bulldog than a Brussels poodle," said Pritchard.
Plaudits came from everywhere for Cameron, including hugs and kisses from Macclesfield, and Father of the House Sir Peter Tapsell labelling Cameron's veto as the "first definitve moment in his premiership". Bernard Jenkin quite appropriately pointed out that Cameron's had "the support of the British people", and John Redwood, who quite possibly got the largest cheer from the Tory benches, described Cameron as "a PM who will say no if he needs to" possessing necessary "negotiating strength".
In what former Europe Minister Denis MacShane referred to as "a coded pro-European point", Nicholas Soames raised business concerns about the impact of the EU treaty veto.
Although not present in the chamber, it was Lord Heseltine whose €urophile credentials flared up excitement. At the mention of his name, those on the Labour benches cheered, and some on the Conservative side gasped. Perhaps Miliband was right, perhaps the Tory party belongs more to Bill Cash, rather than it ever has to Heseltine.