It has taken me a while to get this little piece together, so please bear with me. The history of the British Conservative Party and the centrist German led European People’s Party/European Democrats is long and somewhat tortuous. Suffice to say that the current deal between the Tories and the EPP was hammered out in 1999 by William Hague in Malaga, then further hammered at regular intervals since and currently the links are as thin, though less precious than beaten gold.
Last Tuesday, while Tory Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Daniel Hannan was launching his Congress of Brussels, David Cameron was elected leader of the Tories in the UK and Timothy Kirkhope was elected leader of the Tory MEPs in Brussels. Since then there have been all sorts of carry on.
Cameron pledged to take the Tories out of the ultra federalist grouping, for which he has a strong mandate. Indeed this policy seems to be the only specific policy made during his election campaign. The original promise was made very early in the campaign and was confirmed at party conference to amongst others Martin Callanan, Tory MEP for the North East.
The election of a clean slate in the Brussels delegation of people opposed to the policy of the new Tory leader (Kirkhope leader, Sir Robert (Bob) Atkins deputy and Philip Bushill-Matthews as treasurer) promises to create a serious headache for Cameron. The Tory MEPs issued a press release on Kirkhope’s success, “Timothy Kirkhope victorious in Conservative MEPs’ leadership election.” Anybody who is in on Brussels gossip will raise their eyebrows at the usage of that word when attached to Kirhope’s name.
“Bob” Atkins has been spinning so furiously that he has forgotten what he has said on or off the record, with similar comment both attributed and unattributed depending on which paper you read. His arrogance knows no bounds. Given the scale of Cameron’s victory and his cast iron promise to leave is it sensible for Bob to say, “Sir Robert Atkins said Mr Cameron could not take an ‘arbitrary’ decision. He has to come and talk to us and discuss his plans.”
Anyhow by Wednesday morning six of the 27 Tory MEPs were circulating a letter claiming that they would not leave the blessed EPP. Another story had Kirkhope requesting of Hans-Gert Poettering, the German EPP leader, that he get Angela Merkel to write to Cameron. The letter was paraphrased to me thus,
Congratulations on your victory. Well done. Looking forward to seeing you at the next EPP-ED conference. If you are not there do not expect any invitations to the Reich Chancellery.
With fondest regards,
Apart from the fatuity of such a letter in itself, the thought that Merkel would refuse to meet Cameron, if Cameron and the Tories look like they are capable of winning a general election, given the parlous state of her own administration is preposterous, but the EPP must go on.
Meanwhile sets and subsets of the political nonentities that are Tory MEPs had set about briefing and unbriefing against each other and themselves. One Edward McMillan-Scott, currently the EPP-ED Vice President of the European Parliament, was heard to tell Nigel Farage of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP): “There are four of our members you could have tomorrow. Hannan, Heaton-Harris, Helmer and Callanan.”
Bushill-Matthews took up the cudgels on behalf of the EPP in a Reuters piece (lifted by the Financial Times including the erroneous claim that Geoffrey Van Orden was the Deputy Leader of the delegation) when he claimed that staying was a hard commitment that each Tory had given before the Euro elections. Whilst this is strictly true – all Tory MEPs were forced to sign a letter by then Tory Chairman Liam Fox, to the extent that on the page of the manifesto explicitly committing themselves to the EPP deal, some had explicitly written that they did so under duress. Indeed the EPP commitment was the only aspect that they had to agree to in the whole manifesto, no such commitment was required about key policy planks such as opposition to the Euro or the European Constitution. Of course Liam Fox repudiated this commitment during his candidacy for Tory leadership in one of his own policy pronouncements, showing he didn’t believe it himself.
Giles Chichester, now Chairman of the influential Industry Committee told one friend that he saw no real problem with leaving the EPP, whilst Nirj Deva was going round telling people “That’s it, we are leaving.”
James Elles, former EPP-ED Vice President and head of the internal EPP think tank the European Ideas Network was seen yesterday, hugger mugger with senior German EPP member Elmar Brok, with Brok saying “…but we have always supported ever closer union…” Elles was sagely agreeing with him.
Now that William Hague has been given the job of shadow Foreign Secretary in Westminster the problem lands into his in tray. Contrary to rumour, former MEP and withdrawalist Teresa Villiers has not been gifted the job of Shadow Minister for Europe, which would have signalled a very hard line.
In the meantime what is Kirkhope to do? He wants to stay in the EPP. His party boss Cameron wants to leave. If the Brussels Tories do not leave the EPP, the seven MEPs who voted against Kirkhope could well leave the group. Though Kirkhope could withdraw the delegation whip, he would find it impossible to make it stick as they are merely doing what 68% of the party faithfull had just voted for. If the Brussels Tories do, however, leave the EPP, then there is a different split with the old, bold or just venal staying within the EPP. They would be easier to discipline, but of course the majority of MEPs have sympathy with them, including the delegation leader Timothy Kirkhope.
All this is causing great hoots of hilarity in Brussels as we move towards Christmas. Best of all it has been pointed out that if the Tories do indeed leave the EPP without setting up a new group they would sit with the Non Inscrits (the MPS that do not belong to a specific political group). Due to the vagaries of the alphabetical seating system the seats would go: “..., Kirkhope, Kilroy-Silk, Le Pen, ...” Now that is a photo-op Timothy must be dreading.