Europe still high on the agenda

EUROPE remains central to the thinking of Tory Party activists in the East of England, and that spells bad news for Kenneth Clarke. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the results of a recent survey.

EUROPE remains central to the thinking of Tory Party activists in the East of England, and that spells bad news for Kenneth Clarke. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the results of a recent survey.

KENNETH Clarke may have shot himself in the foot. Instead of patiently waiting to herald his leadership campaign until after the September 27 meeting of the Conservative Party convention considering a change to the rules of electing a leader, the last great Tory warrior let blast last week with his ambitions.

All he has succeeded in doing is frighten the horses. The majority of Tory activists can stand neither Europe nor anyone who champions it. And despite recanting his enthusiastic support for the single currency, Mr Clarke is still tarred with European brush.

Mr Clarke's announcement has emboldened those in the party who resent proposals to change the leadership election rules, which would give the final say to MPs rather than the rank-and-file members.

If the party's convention blocks the change, then Mr Clarke's chances have all but evaporated. There is no way the Conservative Party at large will elect someone with Mr Clarke's views on Europe.

That has been emphasised by a survey in the six counties of the eastern region that reveals more than 90% of all rank and file Conservative Party members want Britain to renegotiate its relationship with the European Union.

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The canvas was conducted by Euro MP Geoffrey Van Orden, who asked members in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire for their gut instincts on Europe.

It shows that the foot soldiers who raise money for the party and stuff envelopes full of election literature want the Tories to carry on taking a decidedly anti-federalist line.

Far from wanting leading Tories to shut up in order to concentrate on other issues, the party activists believe Conservatives should loudly proclaim their sceptic purity.

Mr Van Orden received 656 replies to his survey. Given that the membership in the Eastern region is in excess of 25,000, critics are likely to dismiss the findings but he insists the response was "great."

Asked if Britain's relationship with the EU was still an important political issue, given the defeat of the draft Constitution by French and Dutch voters, 93% said it was, 5% no, and 2% were neutral.

Asked if the Conservative Party should avoid talking about Europe and concentrate on other issues, 77% disagreed, 16% agreed and 7% abstained.

"Is Britain's relationship with the EU about right?" - 76% disagreed, 12% agreed, and 12% were neutral.

"Should the Tories maintain a strongly Eurosceptic position?"-- 78% yes, 15% no, 7% neutral.

"Britain should renegotiate the nature of its relationship with the EU in the direction of the Common Market that we thought we were joining in 1973" - 91% agreed, 6% disagreed, and 3% abstained.

Says Mr Van Orden: "The message is overwhelmingly clear - Europe is still a primary issue. The Conservative Party remains strongly Eurosceptic and should continue to say so.

"There is discontent about Britain's present relationship with the EU and a desire to get back to something like the Common Market."

Mr Van Orden says that it's clear from the survey that Conservatives in the European Parliament should have a more distinctive, autonomous identity after 69% of respondents said the Tories should quit the federalist European People's Party group to which they are aligned.

Such findings make it only too clear that if the Conservative Party leadership contest is thrown open to the 300,000 party members, then Kenneth Clarke - easily the most popular Tory among voters at large - will fail for the third time in his bid to become leader.

Outgoing leader Michael Howard wants the choice to be made by MPs. He argues that the rules should be changed to remove the vote from party members because whoever becomes leader must be confident he or she has the full support of the party in the Commons.

The one and only time the Tory Party flirted with democracy, it chose Iain Duncan Smith as leader, who was sacked in a vote of confidence by MPs two years later.

Under the current system, MPs select two candidates and ordinary party members vote on them. Under the reformed procedure, party members would be asked to rate candidates who have the backing of 5% of MPs. Members of Parliament would then take the final decision.

The proposals are being considered by 1,300 senior party members in a ballot which closes on 27 September when a convention will be held before the annual Tory conference in Blackpool.

There are indications, however, that the membership might be ready to defy Mr Howard's wishes, especially as Kenneth Clarke could emerge as leader if the final choice is down to MPs only.

Shadow trade and industry spokesman David Willetts, who fancies his own chances, said: "Conservative Party members work tirelessly for the Conservative vision of a stronger, more prosperous and more cohesive Britain. They are often the only people to represent the Conservative Party in their area. Those members deserve a say in the leadership of the party they support, and any proposals that do not facilitate democratic involvement deserve to be defeated."

Former Chancellor Lord Lamont said: "I do find it extraordinary - the Conservative Party talking about becoming more inclusive, suddenly decides that this decision is only going to be made by MPs."

Back to Mr Van Orden's survey. It would be fascinating to know the response to the unasked question: "If electing the populist Kenneth Clarke made a Tory victory at the next election a certainty, would you vote for him or still choose a Eurosceptic who might lose that election?"

I'm not suggesting Mr Clarke would take the Tories to victory. But most of the others in the running decidedly would not.

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