There was a heightened sense this week that David Cameron’s European Union renegotiation bid has spun out of his control.
It is likely that this time last year the prime minister did not think that he would be embroiled in a referendum campaign at all, despite the Conservative Party manifesto pledge to hold such a plebiscite. Few pundits were seriously expecting the Tories to get back into power with an overall majority, and so it seemed the pledge would never be put to the test.
Mr Cameron of course did win such a majority in the end. Meanwhile, two major crises flared up: the mass refugee movement and the escalation of the Islamic extremism threat. This was particularly unfortunate for the government, given that restoring control of Britain’s borders was already a key demand among large swathes of the electorate.
Eurosceptic critics of the prime minister say that his heart has never been in the fight to regain powers from Europe.
There was at best a lukewarm reaction to his unveiled reform package last week. Now the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has even contradicted the notion that such reforms would be permanent.
It still seems unlikely that the British electorate will vote to quit the EU when it comes to the crunch, which could be as soon as early summer. But it is entirely possible they will do.
DUP MPs were last night among those who attended a rally in Manchester by Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who demanded: “I want my country back.”
Many unionists will rightly sympathise with such rhetoric, after decades of Brussels red tape. But there is still minimal examination of the issues here in Northern Ireland. It seems that, as happened in the Scottish referendum, widespread interest will only be activated late in any campaign.
This is regrettable. An EU departure will have vast implications for Northern Ireland, not least because it will put the very future of the UK in the spotlight. More debate is needed.