In the next few days David Cameron will make a final decision on how to implement his leadership election pledge to leave the EPP. ConservativeHome still believes that he will fulfil the pledge but the Tory leader is under enormous pressure to kick it into the long grass. Supporters of EPP exit are furious that Mr Cameron did not act during his honeymoon period and that he has allowed opponents to dig into entrenched positions. Writing in this week’s Spectator, Fraser Nelson believes that Mr Cameron’s is now faced with a poor choice "between different shades of defeat."
In this post ConservativeHome reviews the relative strengths of the different lobbies facing Mr Cameron as he weighs the options before him.
Opponents of David Cameron’s EPP exit pledge are saying that Conservatives must honour Michael Howard’s earlier commitment to keep Tory MEPs in the EPP-ED group for the course of this European Parliament. Mr Cameron may think that honouring his own pledge is more important than Mr Howard’s pledge. Additionally, Eurosceptic MEPs claim that the EPP never kept their side of the Howard-Ancram bargain. In return for staying in the EPP-ED Tory MEPs were promised their own staff and resources. This, Eurosceptics say, has never been delivered and Mr Cameron should not feel bound by an agreement that the EPP leadership has already reneged upon.
The additional claim of opponents of immediate EPP exit is that the Cameron pledge was never attached to a timetable. Quentin Davies MP said this yesterday:
"Since he gave no date by which he would carry out his promise to leave the EPP that promise and the Party’s obligation to the EPP (and MEPs’ own electoral pledge) can be reconciled if he confirms that he will remain in the EPP-ED Group until 2009."
This suggestion is hotly disputed. Some MEPs and MPs believe that Mr Cameron was very clear that exit would be immediate. In addition, on 8th December 2005 William Hague told the Today programme that negotiating exit would not take weeks or years but months.
The opponents of EPP exit believe that ‘the Merkel factor‘ is their strongest card. Quentin Davies was playing it yesterday:
"Does the Conservative Party belong with the great mainstream centre-right parties of Continental Europe, the German, Dutch and Portuguese Christian Democrats, the French UMP, the Spanish Partido Popular, the Swedish Moderate Party, the Italian Forza Italia etc? Or does it belong with populist/nationalist parties in Eastern Europe with origins that reach back to the soft fascism that prevailed in countries like Poland and Latvia before World War II when they last enjoyed national independence, combined with a motley ragbag of mavericks, like the Italian pensioner’s champion Carlo Fatuzzo and Kathy Sinnott, an extreme Irish nationalist with a very clerical agenda – someone to the Right of De Valera – who also currently sits alone in the European parliament?" [For more see this pdf
of QD’s remarks]
Lee Rotherham has used a Platform piece to describe the unsavoury backgrounds of Tony Blair’s European Parliamentary allies. Other Eurosceptics complain about the unfairness of the attacks on Poland’s Law & Justice Party, for example, but Tony Blair has repeatedly taunted David Cameron on the issue at PMQs.
The other strong card of the EPP-supporters is the campaign by some businesses for David Cameron to stay within the EPP.
Whatever happens now Mr Cameron looks set to anger some Conservative MEPs. Caroline Jackson is one MEP who is expected to stay within the EPP if David Cameron orders the group to leave. Dan Hannan (who is excited about the "revolutionary" implications of forming a new Eurosceptic grouping in the the Parliament) is one MEP expected to lead a walkout from the EPP if Mr Cameron chooses to stay.
In the exit corner are MPs John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith – both policy group chairmen. There is also Gerald Howarth’s 92 Group of Tory MPs and, most significantly, the Cornerstone Group of nearly 40 MPs led by Edward Leigh and John Hayes.
In the opposite corner are the party’s Europhiles. Ken Clarke and John Gummer are policy group chairmen and have already made their opposition to the Cameron policy very clear. Would they resign their chairmanships? How would Lord Heseltine react? Would he resign from the regeneration taskforce he agreed to oversee (but which reportedly has not yet met)? Lords Patten and Hurd are also opposed to the move.
Two backbenchers – David Curry and Robert Goodwill – argue the issue here.
It is not clear where opinion stands in the shadow cabinet
although Liam Fox can be expected to argue strongly for exit. It was his EPP exit pledge that Mr Cameron later copied during the leadership election. If Mr Cameron had not done so Dr Fox’s surge may have been strong enough to have propelled him into the final round of last year’s contest. David Davis, who did make that final round, always opposed leaving the EPP – perhaps because he foresaw the difficulties it would cause. He may still believe that leaving the EPP would be too messy. He may, however, now feel that his leader’s credibility will be badly damaged if exit is not delivered.
William Hague is reportedly most cautious about leaving the EPP and this reticence may explain the reduction in his net satisfaction rating from 79% to 70% (its lowest level) in the ConservativeHome Members’ Survey (of which more on Sunday).