David Cameron has come under fire from his party's Eurosceptic and pro-European wings after shelving plans to break away from the main centre-right group in the European Parliament.
The Tory leader rejected claims by angry Eurosceptics that he had broken the promise to leave the European People's Party (EPP-ED) that he made during last year's Tory leadership election. Although he pledged to set up a rival grouping within "months not years," he announced yesterday it will not be launched for at least three years.
As The Independent disclosed yesterday, Conservative MEPs will not join forces with the Czech Civic Democrat party (ODS) until after the next European Parliament elections in June 2009.
At a signing ceremony in London with Mirek Topolanek, Prime Minister designate of the Czech Republic, Mr Cameron insisted: "The deal has been honoured. Seven months into my leadership of the Conservatives, a deal that is sustainable for the long term."
Allies said Mr Cameron won the overwhelming backing of Tory MPs when he outlined his plans to them at Westminster yesterday.
But pro-European MPs expressed hopes that the planned breakaway would never happen because the Tories had yet to find the other partners needed to make the new group viable.
Kenneth Clarke, the former Chancellor, said the decision was a "sensible and satisfactory solution to the problem," adding: "Three years is a long time in politics."
The decision puts acute pressure on a hardcore of up to six Eurosceptic MEPs who were determined to quit the EPP-ED but have now been ordered to stay or face deselection.
They include Daniel Hannan, who has said he had "every intention" of keeping the pledge to leave the group, hinting that he would sit with non-affiliated Euro-MPs rather than stay put.
John Bowis, a Tory MEP and former minister, said he would be "very surprised" if Mr Hannan or others left, adding: "This is a common sense solution that should be able to unite the delegation [of Conservative MEPs] behind the party leadership."
A Conservative source described Mr Cameron's declaration as "a Soviet-era statement which really means the exact opposite of what the words say. They say they are leaving the EPP: in fact they are staying."
One European official said the result was "a complete and total humiliation for the Conservatives," adding: "They started off saying they were going to get three respectable parties as allies, then it was two and, finally, it turns out to be one - in three years time."
Douglas Carswell, a Eurosceptic Tory MP who backed Mr Cameron in the leadership election because he promised to leave the EPP-ED, said he was "disappointed" and would support any Tory MEPs who quit the present group immediately.
But William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, warned that any MEPs who quit the group now would not be picked as Tory candidates in 2009. "They would not be a Conservative candidate at the next election," he said.
Caroline Jackson, a Europhile Tory MEP, said the group was "in for a very worrying three years" in which it would have no influence in the Parliament. "It's rather like saying to somebody 'I'm going to divorce you, but I'm going to live in the same house as you for the next three years and we are going to share the kitchen'," she said. "It's not a very happy arrangement."Reuse content