Interview: Europe minister David Lidington

Europe minister David Lidington was in a cheery mood as he picked up his Bloomberg pass on the morning of January 23rd this year. An ambassador greeted him here. A business leader greeted him there. They had all gathered to watch the prime minister entirely change the ground rules of Lidington's job.

I was also at Bloomberg watching Cameron's big speech. And, shortly before the assembled diplomats gathered in a private space to lambast the Europe minister, one of the European ambassadors told me he believed deep uncertainty would be created by the possibility of a British exit from the EU in 2017. Four months have passed since then, and Lidington is getting very used to dealing with uncertainty. As he explains, that was the point.

"The question-mark over Britain's future is there in the public debate already," he says. "What the prime minister did with his referendum pledge was to accept that reality and make clear he was going to lead the debate and shape the debate, to try and get the outcome that he wants." Cameron has set the direction of travel, but the journey is already in danger of proving rockier than he would have hoped. One desirable short-term outcome would have been a cessation of the endless agitations from eurosceptic Tories. But just a few months later, here we are.

"It's never dull," Lidington says drily. He has been in the job for three years now, a Conservative europragmatist in a Foreign Office beset by rebellions and even defeats in the Palace of Westminster over the road. Lidington has won respect from his colleagues on the continent, and even a little sympathy for the blatant gulf between his views and those of his fellow Tory MPs. It is the politicians who are supposed to be on his side who are causing all his biggest headaches. As he points out, none of this makes for a quiet life.

His huge office in the FCO, that grandest of government departments, must have seen many Tory Europe ministers wring their hands over the party's nightmare backbenchers in the past. Now would be a good time for Lidington to concede the contortions of the last 24 hours have produced a total mess. The looming Queen's Speech division on John Baron's amendment has prompted a painful last-minute concession from the government, in the form of a Tory rubber-stamp for a private member's bill.

"Nothing's changed in terms of policy," he insists. Cameron promised the Tories would produce a draft bill in this parliament, and that is what is happening now. "The timing of that is down to the fact we're just about to have the annual ballot of MPs to see who has the right to bring in a private member's bill," he explains. "This is available to Conservative backbenchers to table with official party leadership support if they want to."

Lidington accepts the bill won't be pushed forward in government time and even admits it's "difficult" for private member's bills to reach the statute book. That is not its purpose, though. "It's for other political parties in parliament to say what they're going to do about this and see how their MPs will vote when the question is put to them," he says. That argument isn't winning Baron over in the slightest.

He appears to be clinging to the hope the Speaker may not bother to call the eurosceptic amendment, a vain hope at best. "We'll have to see what happens. The prime minister has said he's relaxed about how backbenchers vote." Relaxed enough to offer one voting rule for ministers and another for backbenchers, in fact. Lidington's strategy is to ignore the Commons vote and focus on the government's solution, a stop-gap private member's bill. "A referendum on Europe during the midpoint of the next parliament is Conservative party policy, though not coalition policy. So I think we would very much expect the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs would be willing to support the private member's bill along the lines of the one published today."

He accepts the weaknesses of the government's position, but thinks Tory MPs should fall into line nonetheless. "My message to Conservative backbenchers is the Conservative party will win back votes by showing that it's delivering to the British people on the issues that matter most to voters and their families," Lidington says. These issues emphatically do not include Europe, he claims. What about Ukip's recent surge, then? Nigel Farage's party could even threaten to take Lidington's own seat of Aylesbury at the next general election, according to Survation. Lidington says he never takes anyone's vote for granted – and then dismisses the Ukip threat out of hand as a protest vote. "I think the announcement of the bill will focus attention again on the fact the referendum is something David Cameron and the Conservative party alone amongst the main political parties in this country is offering to the British people," he continues, getting back on message. That offer is "the chance to settle the European question once and for all by trusting the people to come to a decision".

Lidington is getting very used to dealing with uncertainty. Most ministers have special interest groups taking on their policies. Some even have their reforms overhauled by No 10 or reworked by the necessities of coalition. Very few are obliged to launch into a speculative venture which may or may not advance the interests of the British people. His response to this state of affairs is a quick default to a blind faith in the persuasive skills of himself and his colleagues. "I'm confident David Cameron can achieve reforms within the European Union that will enable him to lead the campaign that he wants to, to stay in a reformed EU," Lidington declares. The government's position, then, is it hopes everything's going to be alright.

When questioned about how the diplomatic spadework on the continent is actually going, a different sense of the state of play emerges. As Europe minister right now Lidington's day-to-day job is all about looking at the smaller picture. He is able to trumpet real achievements in areas like the common fisheries policy, for example, but isn't making so much progress on establishing a digital free market. I suggest the monstrous EU referendum question overshadows this small fry. The fate of a few fishes is "symbolic", Lidington says. "The European Union is a constant process of renegotiation – sometimes of treaties, sometimes of law. I think this government can already point to some very impressive victories in terms of pushing Europe in the direction we want it to go." There is always more to do, though. "Nobody's happy with the status quo," he says quickly when I mention that not everyone is quite so upbeat. "The question is how we're going to try and change Europe in a way that helps the prosperity and security of everybody living there." His question might be 'how'; Nigel Lawson, Michael Portillo and others' question is 'whether' that can ever be realistically achieved.

The time has come to ask the question. If there was an in-out referendum right now, how would you vote? Lidington smiles as he repeatedly dodges the question. I try everything. OK, so there isn't actually a referendum tomorrow. But what if we don't make any further progress with the EU until 2017? "The one thing that is certain is that Europe is going to change and change quite dramatically between now and 2017. Developments within the eurozone alone are going to make that happen. That's even before you get on to the impact of global competition or the way in which parliaments right across Europe are now seriously worried about democratic accountability." Four years is a long time in the European Union, kicking the can down the road. But the diplomatic niceties of not revealing your starting position have an immediate impact which will be felt tomorrow night.

Only about four per cent of the negotiating time between now and 2017 has actually passed, but there has been enough time for Lidington to gauge the early reaction to his prime minister's gambit. It has "sparked debate" at the very least, he says. And there is real interest in the UK's position; he was even "humbled" by being listened to by an audience of 200 – that's right, 200 – somewhere in Scandinavia. "What I detect is interest," he says thoughtfully. Still, it's clear there is a lot of work to be done. Despite all the optimism you'd expect of a man confronted daily by the uncertainty of the future, Lidington sends up a warning flare in response to the reaction he's seen so far.

"I think the challenge that I've become more and more aware of is that the European institutions haven't woken up fully to the urgency of the need for change," he says. "Part of that change has to be economic, because we are falling further behind the United States and the Asian and South American countries are catching up. But part of the change has to be political." He points to the progress of both the far right and far left in France's recent elections, the emergences of neo-fascists in Greece and the Five Star movement in Italy as evidence of this dissatisfaction. It isn't just in Britain that voters are becoming less predictable. "You see disaffection with conventional politics and disaffection from the way European decisions are taken. I think all European governments need to respond urgently to that public mood." Lidington's biggest headache this week is dealing with the pesky Tory backbenchers determined to get an EU referendum come what may – but in the long-run, it's the unsatisfactory lack of early movement from his fellow ministers in European capitals which will be worrying him most.

While Europe slumbers, Tory pests won't give Lidington any rest. He'd probably prefer it if this was the other way around. But then that would be much more dull, wouldn't it?