Cameron blunders on Europe

There is one potential storm that threatens to disrupt the smooth sailing of the Conservatives under David Cameron: Europe. The Tory leader's pledge to remove Conservative MEPs from the European's People Party could create problems.

David Cameron could be forgiven for feeling on a high. Not only is he significantly ahead in the polls, but each week some new blunder seems to engulf the Government and gloss over his mistakes. Even Cameron's lambasting of Radio One for encouraging youngsters to carry knives has not attracted the kind of flack previous Tory leaders might have encountered. But there is one potential storm that might disrupt Cameron's smooth sailing and that is Europe.

It is a curious fact that the fairly complex issue of relations with the European Union has caused more problems for the Conservative leadership than any amount of sex and corruption scandals. And so it is with Cameron, who is pledged to remove the party's MEPs from the European People's Party a euro-wide combination of conservative parties in the European parliament. Writing in The Sunday Times, Michael Portillo emphasised the importance of this pledge. "Euroscepticism provides the link between the party leader and that large body of right-wing opinion that did not convert to modernisation."

But the commitment is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Almost half of Conservative MEPs are determined to stay in the EPP, where they believe they get a measure of prestige. Cameron also runs the risk of antagonising potential European allies. Rachel Sylvester in The Daily Telegraph highlights the fact that Cameron declined to attend pre-summit talks with other centre-right leaders in Brussels this week, a dismissive response that didn't impress Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, two natural and crucial allies for him.

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There is also the question of what to do after withdrawing from the EPP. Sitting with independents means sitting with the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Alessandra Mussolini. Trying to form a third grouping would be equally as difficult, as that would involve joining with a Polish homophobic party, an Irish republican and a Lithuanian accused of extremism. And some Tory MEPs would defy him anyway and remain in the EPP, warns Portillo.

In fact, "there is no third way", explains Sylvester, who points out that this is why staunch sceptics like Hague and Duncan Smith did not withdraw from the group. "It was not politically achievable." But ditching the pledge is also going to be difficult. Labour would seize on the reverse as clear evidence of Cameron's flip-flopping approach to issues. He would also seriously provoke many Tories who are already "jittery" over his approach to tax and public services. "As his predecessors have found, mutterings can quickly turn to plots."

Sylvester believes that the Conservative leader will be tempted to kick the "whole thing into the long grass". An announcement due next week will in fact become nothing more than a "progress report". But an issue this sensitive is bound to re-emerge. "He cannot now avoid a party split," says Portillo. "By blundering into this terrain he will resurrect the party's reputation for being divided and self-obsessed."