Tories wrong to join a `bizarre cabal'

It was a good day for the Conservatives to announce bad news - the formation of the new centre-right grouping in the European Parliament headed by the Tories was almost lost as John Bercow became the new Speaker.

Graham Dines

It was a good day for the Conservatives to announce bad news - the formation of the new centre-right grouping in the European Parliament headed by the Tories was almost lost as John Bercow became the new Speaker.

East of England Tory Euro MP Geoffrey van Orden - who is in the running to become leader of this European Conservatives and Reformists Group - won't thank me for saying this, but I think the Tories were wrong to quit the Christian Democrats alliance in the European Parliament, known as the European People's Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED).

While the Tories' abandonment of the Christian Democrats is unlikely to be a subject to be heard at this weekend's barbecues, the machinations of European politics could have long-term repercussions given that the parties of Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi are all allied to the EPP-ED.

Distancing the Conservatives from these governing parties is likely to be seen by European leaders as the first plank in a policy of isolationism.

The Tories' main objection to EPP-ED is that it is federalist, wanting ever closer union between member states, with an outlook which says a country called Europe should have its own foreign policy and should have a standing army, navy and air force.

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However, David Cameron can't have it both ways. He can't say that the UK should remain in the European Union and at the same time oppose one of the fundamental tenets of membership, which is a federal state governed by the Treaty of Lisbon.

As I have repeatedly said over the years, “in Europe, not run by Europe” is an absolutely meaningless phrase. The UK is either a full European partner and signed up to the whole package, or we should gracefully withdraw. Thinking that by forming an anti-federalist grouping in the European Parliament you can stop the inevitable is just muddle headed.

The 26 Tory MEPs will now sit with 15 MEPs from Poland's Law and Justice Party (PiS), nine from the Czech Republic's ODS (Civil Democrats) and one MEP each from Hungary, Latvia, Finland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

That comfortably beats the requirements that an official political group must have at least 25 members from at least seven EU countries. The staunchly Catholic Polish PiS has banned gay marches in Poland for being “sexually obscene” as has the Latvian For fatherland and Freedom Party, which has honoured its Waffen SS war veterans.

The leader of Liberal Democrat MEPs, the East of England Euro MP Andrew Duff, said: “It is strange for British Conservatives to find themselves trapped in a bizarre cabal of ultra Catholics from Poland and ultra Calvinists from the Netherlands.

“It is certainly not in the British interest for the Tories to be moving from the political mainstream to the political margins.”

But the Tories said the new group was likely to be the fourth largest bloc in the new European Parliament and the first credible opposition to the federalist, pro-integrationist political groups.

Shadow Europe Minister Mark Francois said: “We are very excited about this important new development in European politics. Our European Conservatives and Reformists Group will make a strong case for a centre/centre-right but non-federalist future for the EU.”

BROWN OFFENDS THE POLES

By attacking David Cameron's new European allies,, the Prime Minister really ought to watch his language. Migrants from Poland have been angered at Brown's attack on the PiS, so much so that Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski took the Prime Minister to task in the Commons.

“The Prime Minister's insult to the Law and Justice Party of Poland . . . is a great insult to the President of Poland (Lech Kaczynski) who is a member of that party and to the Polish people who elected that party into office.

“No matter what he may think of the Law and Justice Party, he must understand that as Prime Minister of the UK he has a duty to implement basic diplomatic procedures.”

In the Commons this week, Labour's Martin Linton said the Tories had forged a “fruitcake fringe of climate change deniers, Obama-haters and commemorators of the Waffen SS?” with the Prime Minister adding that it was sad “that the Conservative Party has rejected that centre-right grouping in favour of another grouping that contains a number of people with whose views I certainly could not agree and most people in this House would find it difficult to agree.”

BERCOW SETS HIMSELF A TOUGH CHALLENGE

MR Speaker Bercow is demanding that Cabinet ministers abandon their contempt for the Commons and to announce major policy and spending initiatives to MPs first rather than the media.

Fat chance.

He may be hoping that the Government takes notice of him as he's new in the chair and was elected with a reforming mandate, but trying to keep pushy government ministers off the airwaves and out of the front pages is doomed to failure.

I'm often narked that when I switch on Radio 4's Today programme, some inconsequential minister is spilling the beans on what he or she are going to announce that afternoon in the Commons. If he or she can get the prime 8:10am slot after the news, the more their stock rises with Labour's spin controllers.

The Government has also got down to a fine art its manipulation of the national media - for instance, a crackdown on asylum seekers will be pre-announced to the Daily Mail, law reform is given to The Times, and equality legislation to The Guardian. This leaves other newspapers and broadcasters having to use the story up 24 hours later than their rivals.

It happens at Labour Party conferences as well - journalists wake up to headlines in rival publications which they knew nothing about.

Politicians like to set the news agenda, and planting scoops on the radio and in the newspapers helps shape the coverage. It is, however, a fundamental threat to the primacy of parliament.

I wish Speaker Bercow well in his efforts. But I can't say the same about his call for “calm and reasoned debate” at Prime Minister's Questions.

The Commons is an adversarial debating chamber. The front benches are positioned two sword lengths from each other so that MPs cannot engage in deadly combat.

The new Speaker is wrong when he says: “There is simply far too much noise. The public doesn't like it - and neither do I.”

Mr Bercow may find the noise offensive, but the public enjoys a boisterous parliamentary brawl because in truth PMQs is the only 30 minutes a week when more than a handful of MPs bother to turn-up in the chamber.

SIR MICHAEL HUMILIATED

THE humiliation of Suffolk Central & Ipswich North MP Sir Michael Lord in the contest to be Speaker raises doubts over his political future.

Just nine MPs - one of whom was presumably Sir Michael - voted for him. He came bottom of the poll on the first ballot and he was unceremoniously eliminated.

Age must have been the major consideration - he's 71 this year - because having presided over the Commons for the past 12 years in his capacity as one of three deputies to Speakers Boothroyd and Martin, Sir Michael must have built up a network of backbench supporters.

Sir Michael sits on a majority of 7,856 in a seat eyed by many younger Tories looking for a parliamentary career. He indicated in his Commons speech that he would serve one more term as an MP but there is surely a case for MPs being forced to retire like the rest of us at 65.

In the next Week in Politics, I'll be asking: what next for the bedblockers?

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