When David Cameron was asked about the UK Independence Party he called it a home for fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists. Threatened with legal action, the Tory leader stood his ground. Mr Cameron?s calculation was that abusing Ukip reinforced the message that Conservatism had finally vacated politics? wilder shores.
Politicians are described by the company they keep as well as by the policies they promote. An obsessive hostility to the European Union, Mr Cameron seemed to have understood, positioned the Tories as allies of Ukip?s stripy-blazered xenophobes.
So he has said nothing much about Europe since becoming leader six months ago. Instead of making headlines with promises to be nasty to foreigners, Mr Cameron has wooed new constituencies. His pitch has been to the socially concerned middle classes, to women, to the green vote and, most recently, to public servants.
Some Conservatives will always be determined to relive the second world war. It is a pity that William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, has sometimes encouraged them.
Mr Hague is on record as remarking that Germans are well practised at making themselves ?at home in other people?s countries?. Such crass attempts at humour speak to bitter insecurity. They also make it harder for Mr Cameron to persuade people he has broken with Little England.
Coming to terms with Europe connects to the central political challenge for the Tory leader. One of the things that the opinion pollsters most often hear is that while uncommitted voters rather like
Mr Cameron, they doubt the Conservatives have changed. Nice chap, pity about his party, is the gist of it ? and europhobia provides one of the sharpest definitions of the Toryism the voters have rejected.
Tony Blair faced a similar image problem when he became Labour leader in the mid-1990s. His answer was to run against Old Labour.
Mr Blair?s strategic ambition was always to persuade the voters that the party had changed decisively. He offered added reassurance, though, by showing that, if necessary, he would defy his own supporters. For the most part, Mr Cameron has been using the same political play book.
This makes it all the more extraordinary that the Tory leader now seems set on forcing the 26 Conservative members of the European parliament to break with the centre-right European People?s Party. True, Mr Cameron made such a promise during his campaign for the leadership. But everything he has done since suggests he understands the wisdom of something once said by the economist John Maynard
Keynes: when the facts change, sensible folk change their minds.
The facts have changed. Mr Cameron imagined that establishing another political grouping in the parliament would be easy. The Conservatives could eschew the federalist ambitions of Germany?s Christian Democrats and their allies at little or no cost. It is now evident that the price will be high. Tory MEPs are split, with some determined to remain in the EPP. Mr Cameron risks being shunned by Germany?s Angela Merkel and by France?s Nicolas Sarkozy, figures who should be his natural allies on the European centre right.
For his part, Mr Hague seems to have realised that it will be all but impossible for the Conservatives to establish a new parliamentary grouping without linking up with extreme nationalists in Poland, France, Sweden, Lithuania and Latvia. These, of course, are the continental equivalents of the Ukip oddballs
Mr Cameron now derides at home.
Some close to the Tory leader clearly see the EPP pledge as a mistake made in the heat of the leadership campaign. Privately, they lament that Mr Cameron feels obliged to keep it. I have heard others say, though, that the leader is more of a eurosceptic than he lets on. His early experience of Europe as an adviser to Norman Lamont, chancellor in John Major?s government, was traumatic: Mr Cameron was present in the Treasury when sterling was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism in September 1992.
I am not sure how deep his doubts run. What is clear is that foreign policy is not his strong suit. He has not travelled widely and has met precious few political leaders from overseas. It shows. Mr Cameron has been heard to refer to one such meeting as being with the president of ?Czechoslovakia?. Gaps like that, though deeply embarrassing, can be filled.
To leave the EPP would display a more profound lack of understanding. The prospect of a European superstate exists now only in the recurring nightmares of the europhobes. The task for serious European politicians during the next five or 10 years will be to forge a new concordat between nation states, the Union and globalisation. Many of the elements of this new bargain will be attractive to Britain. A modern Conservative party, free of the demons of the past, could make a substantial contribution. It is that or the fruitcakes.
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