Old rifts open up for Tories as Eurosceptics see red, and Cameron policy on UK referendum remains confused
IRELAND'S volte-face on the Lisbon Treaty is already re-opening the old fault lines on Europe that have proved so destructive to the Conservative party in the past.
As Tory delegates prepare to descend on Manchester for the their final conference before the general election, Ireland's emphatic Yes to the treaty would have been greeted with dismay by most members.
The fury at Labour for denying the UK its own referendum still lingers, and Conservative Eurosceptics will look at events across the Irish Sea with deep suspicion, believing that Ireland has taken a step that threatens UK sovereignty.
David Cameron knows that anything other than a united front could upset his march to Downing Street, a journey that looks almost inevitable with opinion polls last night suggesting that the Conservatives had opened up a 12 point lead on Labour.
But Europe is the one issue with the potential to destabilise the party as they head for a conference that Cameron hopes will showcase a disciplined government-in-waiting.
It is a problem that is exercising the minds of both the pro and anti-European wings of the party, a fact that was yesterday recognised by the pro-European Tory grandee Ken Clarke.
Clarke said it would be a "disaster" if the Tories spent the conference debating the Lisbon Treaty at a time when the government was announcing its economic policies on unemployment, manufacturing and the deficit. "Most people, if you say shall we have a debate about the Treaty of Lisbon at our party conference will feel an inner shudder," said Clarke, a veteran of the vicious schisms over Europe that were a hallmark of the party as it disintegrated during the 1990s.
Delegates might well feel a "shudder" when Europe comes on the agenda, but that is because the prospect of more powers being handed over to Brussels still rouses strong feelings within the party.
William Hague is already being seen as a rallying point for Eurosceptics – a development that will not please Clarke and his supporters.
Yesterday, the shadow foreign secretary left open the possibility of some form of referendum on the treaty even if it is ratified by all member states – a notion that was also supported by the London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Hague refused to rule out a vote being held by the Tories that would seek the return of specific powers, such as the social chapter, working-time directives and health and safety laws. His attitude might offer some hope to the many grassroots Tories, who disapprove of Cameron's referendum policy, which has been the source of some confusion.
The Conservative leader has promised to hold a UK referendum if the treaty has not been ratified by all 27 member states when the Tories come to power. Poland and the Czech Republic have yet to ratify the agreement. If all states have agreed to the treaty by the time the Tories are in government, then Cameron has said, rather vaguely, that the party would "not let matters rest there".
Yesterday, a poll of grassroots members revealed that more than eight out of ten want Cameron to call a referendum even if all 27 countries have already agreed to it.
The possibility of an internal revolt was raised by the survey of 2,205 Tory members carried out by the ConservativeHome.com website. A significant minority (39 per cent) believed that Britain should pull out of the EU altogether – a scenario that is totally at odds with Conservative policy, which is committed to British membership. Another 29 per cent thought Britain should remain an EU member but should renegotiate the terms of membership.
Perhaps the most telling result was that 55 per cent wanted a new referendum process even if Lisbon had been approved, and 29 per cent said the treaty should be declared illegitimate and a UK poll held authorising a Conservative government to opt out of the agreement.
Struan Stevenson, Scotland's only Tory MEP, admitted that Europe was still a big issue at the grassroots, with some –members on the edges of the anti-European wing even thinking about defecting to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the party calling for withdrawal from Europe.
"I have been invited to go and speak at a Tory dinner shortly," he said. "The invitation says – would you please explain exactly what the party policy is on the Lisbon Treaty in a robust a way as we know that you can, because some of our members are almost saying that they would drift to UKIP."
Stevenson's experience suggests that Cameron's policy on the Lisbon Treaty obviously has some way to go before it is clearly understood by many Tories.
Despite Hague dangling the prospect of some kind of vote after full ratification, Stevenson said it would be "difficult" to hold a referendum after the treaty had been agreed – a view that plainly would not go down well with the Tories questioned in yesterday's survey.
Assuming the treaty is signed and sealed by the general election, life could be very difficult for the Conservatives – a fact which appeared to be recognised by a leading Eurosceptic contacted by Scotland on Sunday.
The politician, a member of Cameron's front bench, refused to say whether he agreed with those Tories who believed that there ought to be a referendum even if the Lisbon Treaty has been ratified.
"We will come to that when we come to that," the politician said. "It is still not ratified, therefore the line is that we shall have a referendum."
It will be difficult for the party to remain on message as it attempts to paper over the cracks that led to such bitter infighting during John Major's premiership.
In the mid-1990s, Major was undermined by his right-wing enemies within the party, who disagreed with his policy on European integration.
Stevenson believes a legal challenge rather than referendum could be the best way of clawing back powers from the Lisbon Treaty once if it is ratified by the time the Tories take office.
According to the MEP, a ruling by German constitutional judges has decided that German law must take priority over the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The ruling, Stevenson said, had "undermined the whole EU project", adding: "I suggested to William Hague that this is something that we should look at with a view to our senior constitutional judges seeing if in fact what the German judges ruled would apply here. We could have a very serious look at how the Lisbon Treaty could be unravelled."
For the Tories there is also the ultimate nightmare – a Conservative government having to deal with an unelected Tony Blair as the EU president.
Stevenson said the treaty would lead to "27 prime ministers… deciding who should be the next president of the European Union. That is no kind of democracy. That's what Lisbon entails. So Tony Blair would emerge from that kind of secret enclave – smoke-filled room – as the president of Europe for the next five years.
"Presumably then Mandelson would find that he was appointed chef de cabinet and would become the most powerful mandarin in the Europe and that would be his sinecure until he was ready to retire."
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