AFTER a long and erratic political journey as Conservative leader, David Cameron is at one again with his party. Following his speech on Europe, ecstatic Tory MPs greeted him in the Commons as if he was a returning war hero. They have got their referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Union. As a bonus both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are placed on the defensive as they struggle to respond to that most simplistic of deadly questions: "Are you opposed to consulting the people?"
Yet Cameron's newly outlined course is full of traps that he need not have set so far in advance. His historic speech makes it less, rather than more, likely that he will be prime minister after the next election.
The unravelling will take many forms and will happen quite quickly. Cameron did not specify what precisely he would seek to renegotiate.
His broad arguments suggest a renegotiation so fundamental that if miraculously successful, the UK would be part of a reformed single market and little else.
For Cameron, a committed Eurosceptic leading a party almost wholly united in its Euroscepticism, the negotiation is dauntingly real and ambitious.
Cameron can start now, at least informally and provisionally. Inevitably the general election will be partly a progress report on his early discussions. Voters will be able to form some idea on their likely outcome and will expect Cameron to be more precise about whether he will recommend a 'Yes' or 'No' vote.
A refusal to do so would look shifty over an issue that will partly become one about trust and integrity, as most issues do, unfairly, in British politics.
The broader political implications are also more ambiguous than jubilant Tory MPs and pundits seemed to recognise. As those on the Right cheered, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg expressed alarm. Cameron's original political strategy when elected Tory leader in 2005 has been blown to pieces. He is ending his half-hearted attempts at modernisation and realigning himself with the hard core of his party.
Cameron and his party will get a boost in the polls. But I suspect most of the polls will point to another hung parliament. That is why Cameron's speech makes him less likely to be prime minister after the next election.
Propping up a premier who could lead a campaign to withdraw from the EU would be a deal-breaker. Because of Cameron's position on Europe, I do not believe the Liberal Democrats could form another coalition with the Conservatives. Cameron's political future was brighter the day before he made the speech than it is now. (© Independent News Service)