AECR meeting

The cult of David Cameron. You might not belong to it or even believe in it, but trust me – it exists. I discovered ample proof of that yesterday in a fancy hotel outside of Winchester.

I was there for the annual gathering of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists. This, you’ll remember, is the party of parties that arose from the creation of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament in 2009. Our very own Conservative Party is signed up to it, of course. As are over a dozen other parties from across Europe, both inside and outside of the European Union.

Anyway, yesterday’s event was set up as a council meeting, but it played out more like a festival of conservative politics. Daniel Hannan, who is Secretary General of the AECR, was emcee for much of the day. Sajid Javid dropped in to deliver a speech, as did Dr. Anthony Daniels (aka Thedore Dalrymple). There were progress reports from across the Continent, panel discussions, and these wonderful little cakes that were half-flan, half-trifle.

But what really stood out to my receptors was the widespread admiration for David Cameron – and not just in the speeches that were caught on camera. Many of the delegates I chatted to were quick to wax enthusiastic about Britain’s Prime Minister. They spoke breathlessly of “Cameron’s victory,” by which they meant not just the recent election result, but also the improved prospect of an EU referendum. They described him as an “inspiration” and a “friend”. They wished they had someone like him in their own countries.

And I should stress: this was a healthy cross-section of people. Part of me expected to be greeted at the hotel by a gaggle of grey-haired men. But grey hair was in the minority, and roughly a third of the gathering was female. People came from Iceland, Turkey, Armenia and beyond. And none of them, at least none of the ones I spoke to, were the weirdos of caricature. They just happened to lean towards Euroscepticism. And they just happened to love David Cameron for what he’s achieved.

This passion is seldom aired over here. In Britain, the referendum is already wreathed in shadow and speculation. Will Cameron really be able to renegotiate our relationship with the EU? Will the Conservative Party split itself apart over the subsequent vote? And so on. But across Europe it’s seen as something simpler. Here is one of the grandest countries in the Union demanding change – and on pain of exit. It must be thrilling for those opposed to greater and greater integration.

It’s also a vindication of the ECR and the AECR themselves. People scoffed when Cameron took the Conservatives out of the federalist European People’s Party, as though he was also taking them beyond the pale. Some predicted that it wouldn’t – couldn’t – last. But the ECR is now the third largest group in the European Parliament. And the AECR is the fourth largest party of its kind. There is clearly an appetite for reform within Europe. As Jan Zahradil, the serving President of the alliance, put it yesterday, “Mr Juncker can no longer ignore that.”

Sadly, I had to leave yesterday’s proceedings early, to catch a train to Edinburgh – so I can’t provide a fuller account. These brief and general impressions will have to do. The AECR is not a perfect organisation, as ConservativeHome’s own Peter Franklin has documented, but it is a good and growing one. Hannan and all the other British Conservatives involved with it – Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and Syed Kamall among them – should be congratulated.