Tories' EU problems

 

THE ANTIPATHY to all things European manifested at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this week is not just the usual case of an extremist rank and file tail wagging a cautious parliamentary dog. The delegates, sad to say, are probably genuinely in tune with Britain’s Eurosceptical public mood and with most of their MPs on the issue.

But there is also clearly a leadership reluctance to embrace a wholehearted assault on the European Union, a desire to pull punches, most notably to fudge commitments to referendums, despite the instincts of many senior members. That has a lot to do with a more nuanced understanding of that public mood – although hostile to the EU, voters tell pollsters the issue is not by any means at the top of their to-do list. For the Tories to make the issue a central plank of their election campaign might well be to send out the message that they do not share the electorate’s sense of priorities, whatever about their values. And that therefore, as Labour will try to show, they are essentially the unreformed ideological party of old, not the pragmatic, modern, centrist New Tories that leader David Cameron is so keen to project.

Cameron apart, there is widespread disappointment at the Irish vote on Lisbon, not least its emphatic quality. Mr Cameron still says that he will hold a referendum on the treaty, which Britain has already formally ratified, only in the increasingly unlikely eventuality that Lisbon has not been finally signed off on by the time the Tories come to power. Anxious, however, to preserve his Eurosceptic credentials in a party in which they are vital he appears to have let the Guardian know that he may fight for the restoration of a British social policy opt-out,

But there is still a wider appetite for what one shadow minister, Andrew Rosindell called for, then retracted under pressure from his leader, a referendum “whatever the circumstances”. On the issue of membership itself? Many Tories say yes.

The Lord Mayor of London, the irrepressible, populist Boris Johnson, on Sunday broke with the leadership by insisting that even if the treaty was in force the party should “give effect” to the public’s views and that key parts of the treaty could be put to referendum. And later he warned that he would fight in the ditches any attempt by Brussels to impose “ill-thought out regulation” on his City of London. He was reminded by the party’s Europhile conscience, Ken Clarke, that, in the light of recent history, the French and Germans hardly needed lessons from Britain or the US on regulating financial markets. Touché.