David Cameron was forced to appeal for party unity as Conservative divisions over Europe spilled into the open on Monday, overshadowing the start of the party’s crucial pre-election conference.
The fragile Tory consensus on Europe crafted by Mr Cameron appeared in danger of fragmenting as the party digested the implications of this weekend’s Irish vote to ratify the European Union’s Lisbon treaty.
Senior Tories took issue with their leader’s stance of refusing to spell out what he would do if the treaty was fully ratified by the time he came to power.
Andrew Rosindell, the shadow home affairs minister, told the BBC that voters “want a referendum whatever the circumstances and I think that that is something the British people have a right to expect”. But the shadow frontbencher later recanted, issuing a statement expressing his “full support” for the leader’s line.
Another senior Tory was also forced to issue a “clarification” as the tensions within the party were exposed in a series of fringe meetings and interviews.
Ken Clarke, the pro-European shadow business secretary, fuelled speculation that he would resign from a Conservative cabinet if the treaty was put to a plebiscite. Asked at a fringe event what role he would play in a campaign, Mr Clarke replied: “I will wait to see if we have a referendum and I will see if either side invites me.” In a later statement, the former chancellor stressed that he “wouldn’t contemplate campaigning against my colleagues”.
But Mr Clarke did not hide his deep-seated opposition to the leadership’s eurosceptic stance, telling delegates he had agreed with Mr Cameron “that I don’t have to go around pretending to have had a Pauline conversion and changed my views”.
Another europhile Tory, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, asserted on Monday that it would be “absurd” and “pointless” to hold a post-ratification referendum.
The row dominated the opening day of the Tory conference to such an extent that the Conservative leader used the main conference platform to urge his party to reach out to voters, rather than fight over Europe. “This is such an important week for us,” he said. “Let’s make this the week not when we talk to ourselves . . . [but] talk to the country.”
Mr Cameron is under pressure from fellow centre-right Europeans to rule out a bid to renegotiate the treaty, which has taken years to agree.
One of Mr Cameron’s leading allies in Europe on Monday stressed his disagreement with the Tory leader’s call for a referendum on the treaty. “To make such a policy will not help someone who is probably going to be the next prime minister of Great Britain,” Fredrik Reinfeldt, the prime minister of Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said.
A potential compromise was revealed by Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, much to the discomfort of the party leadership.
Mr Johnson said ratification would not prevent a Conservative administration putting “key parts” of the treaty – rather than the entire agreement – to the public vote.
“The difficulty is that probability that the whole thing will be done and dusted . . . by the time of a new Conservative government,” the mayor told the BBC. “There are things that could be done and it’s certainly the case that you could put key parts of this treaty to the people.”
Mr Cameron runs the risk of sacrificing votes to the europhobic UK Independence party if he dashes his party’s expectations of a referendum.
Greg Clark, the shadow energy secretary, insisted on Monday the Tories should not be “chasing Ukip around”.
But he was barracked by activists when he rejected suggestions the leadership had a “non-position” on Europe.
Mr Cameron could only renegotiate UK membership if a majority of member states agreed to talk; any changes would require unanimous agreement. One senior EU diplomat said the chances of that were “less than zero”.
Mr Cameron is waiting to see whether Vaclav Klaus, Czech president, signs the treaty – which has been referred to his country’s constitutional court – before he gives further details of his policy. But Mr Klaus hinted Mr Cameron may not be able to hide behind him much longer.
The insistence by Eric Pickles, Tory party chairman, that it was “very unlikely” the treaty would be ratified before the election, was at odds with a buoyant new mood in EU capitals.
“I think in the end, President Klaus will sign the treaty,” said José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president.
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