When a new group of Conservative eurosceptic MPs was launched last month amid much fanfare and media coverage, it was clear that the Tory high command were trying to manage the visceral, eurosceptic instincts of their party. But as Conservatives gather for their annual conference in Manchester, the divisive and toxic issue of Europe is firmly back on the Conservative agenda. The containment strategy is failing.
In opposition, the Tories found euroscepticism an easy stick with which to beat the Labour government. Accusations of “selling out to the Brussels Eurocrats” were a rallying cry that resonated with large swathes of public opinion and most of our fiercely anti-European press. Fuelling this fire was convenient in opposition, but since entering Downing Street, David Cameron has struggled to dampen the flames he once fanned.
On Sunday, the prime minister stated “I don’t want Britain to leave the European Union.” And his Foreign Secretary has also suddenly become a cheerleader for our membership. A decade after accusing Tony Blair of turning Britain into a foreign land, William Hague is now positively gushing about the benefits of 27 countries acting together. In Sunday’s Observer, he underlined the importance of EU sanctions against the Syrian government and an EU free trade agreement with South Korea. And these warm words are not just to keep pro European Lib Dems happy, Hague believes what he is saying.
So what seemed like an opportunity in opposition, now becomes a threat in government. Last month, George Eustice called together a group of 120 Tory MPs, largely from the 2010 intake, to discuss European policy. It was a strategic move, orchestrated by the party leadership itself. Perhaps they should have chosen a less obvious leader of the group. After all, Eustice was Cameron’s press officer in opposition. But they needed someone capable, credible and above all loyal, to control the eurosceptic energy which played so well in opposition but is now so dangerous to the government.
The intention of the new group is to shift the parameters of the debate on Europe. Cameron wants to move the party’s euroscepticism away from the perennial and divisive question of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, and put energy and focus into a campaign for the repatriation of powers. He also needs to show his authority by sidelining the older hardline eurosceptic MPs, such as Bill Cash and Richard Shepherd, who John Major called the “men in white coats”. To put the newer, younger Tory MPs in the driving seat albeit with the levers of powers being pulled from Downing Street.
At Conservative party conference, Cameron wants to focus on his economic message. But instead, he has found himself in that familiar position of Tory Party leaders trying to dodge questions about divisions over Europe. The prime minister now faces the prospect of a vote in the Commons on a referendum on our EU membership this autumn.
The government of the day, of whichever political colour, is always pragmatic enough to understand that Britain’s membership of the European Union is in our national interest. Perhaps next time the Tories are in opposition, they will think twice about stoking the fires of euroscepticim which will inevitably come back to haunt them in government.
Emma Reynolds MP is a shadow Foreign Office minister
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