As I’m being shown into the minister for Europe’s office, I spot a large, half-eaten chocolate cake. “It was for the previous meeting,” an aide explains. The Foreign Office has high ceilings, plush carpets and antiques and when the Kosovan ambassador comes to visit, it also has cake.

We meet on Europe Day. Lidington jokes that he “hadn’t even heard about until I opened the Daily Express this morning”. He might be flippant in passing, but Europe is clearly an issue that he, the prime minister and the coalition take extremely seriously. He doesn’t even have to look outside his own party to find serious opposition to his EU Bill, which is currently making its way through the House of Lords, having provoked passionate and lengthy debate in the Commons.

“It’s fair to say that quite a lot of my Conservative colleagues wish the government was openly calling for a repatriation of powers from the EU,” he says, going on to refer to the “flak” the bill received from Conservative backbenchers.

And it isn’t just Conservative MPs he’s found trying on this subject. Smiling, he identifies a group of MPs from all parties who he euphemistically terms “EU connoisseurs”. He adds: “One of the things I sometimes find a bit depressing is that you have a debate on Europe and it is the same cast in the chamber” .

It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the EU Bill, as Lidington freely admits. The two parties’ different positions on Europe was a major subject in the coalition negotiations. The fact it hasn’t really caused any contention in the cabinet so far is something that Lidington puts down to both parties making major concessions: “I campaigned, as did William Hague, as did David Cameron, on a manifesto that pledged to repatriate powers from the EU, but equally the Liberal Democrats have made significant concessions in accepting that there should be a legislative lock requiring a referendum before any treaty change.”

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been robust criticism of the EU Bill from members of both parties. Lidington takes me through a particularly tough week earlier this year where he spent Monday being interrogated by the 1922 committee “largely from a eurosceptic direction”, Tuesday in the Commons for “a day on parliamentary sovereignty complete with a 60-minute speech from Bill Cash on the subject”, and then Wednesday being grilled by Liberal Democrat peers. It’s the latter that prompts the most vivid recollection.

“So there I was walking into a room and explaining and defending the bill to an audience that included Shirley Williams, Bill Rogers, Dick Taverne, Hugh Dykes, Anthony Lester – all people whose political careers had been defined by the European issue and their support for it.”

One of the points that these veteran parliamentarians teased out was that while the coalition is pushing for a referendum lock on future treaty changes, they are positive in their attitude towards the EU overall.

Lidington’s message is that alongside a referendum, he is absolutely clear that “it is in the interests of the UK that we are seen as an influential and positive player within the European Union”. When I put it to him that his enthusiasm for the EU in general and the single market in particular could seem contradictory, given the desire to make the transfer of powers more difficult, he denies this. He explains that there are already other countries with similar referendum provisions.

“Thinking back, had the Nice, Amsterdam, Maastricht and Lisbon treaties been not just supported by the government but taken through with a referendum, we would not have the degree of public disaffection we have today.”

I ask Lidington whether, if he could, he would hold a referendum on whether Britain should withdraw from the EU. He dismisses the idea, saying: “No, I think that would be a distraction.” It’s no wonder, really, that the “EU connoisseurs” are up in arms.

“Quite a surprise” is how he described the call from the prime minister a year ago asking him to take on the role of minister for Europe. An MP since 1992, he was shadow minister for Northern Ireland for five years before taking on the Middle East portfolio. Europe had never really been his area of expertise.

But the prime minister’s decision to pass over the shadow minister for Europe, Mark Francois, a known eurosceptic, in favour of the more Lib Dem-friendly Lidington, is an indication of the direction Cameron intends to take on Europe. For now, at least, Lidington and Cameron are going to lead from the front in an attempt to convince their party, and the country, that we are better off inside the EU as a major player.

Tags: David Lidington, Europe, European Union, Foreign Office, Issue 36