Pro-European Conservatives have launched an attempt to turn back the Eurosceptic tide in the party they fear is sweeping Britain towards the exit door of the EU.
Tory MPs who describe themselves as "Euro realists" claim the "silent majority" of the public do not want the UK to quit the EU. But they believe that a reluctant David Cameron is being pushed in that direction by Tories who believe Britain would be "better off out". The Prime Minister insists he wants the UK to stay in a reformed EU, but in a much-promised speech later this month will pledge a referendum after the 2015 election on the terms of membership. That has raised fears of British withdrawal if voters reject the "new settlement" Mr Cameron wins.
One senior Tory MP said today that Mr Cameron was "all over place" on Europe, adding: "He is trying to get the hardline Tory Eurosceptics and the UK Independence Party off his back but he is quietly urging others to make the positive case. He thinks his speech will close down the debate until after 2015 but it will open up a Pandora's box." Downing Street is said to be encouraging about 20 Tory MPs to publish a letter warning that leaving the EU would cause "massive damage" to the UK economy.
Conservatives are the driving force behind a new cross-party think tank, the Centre for British Influence through Europe, to be launched on 30 January. Business leaders, academics and diplomats are expected to join forces with Tories Kenneth Clarke, the Minister without Portfolio, Lord Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Mandelson, who was Labour's Business Secretary, Alan Johnson, Labour's former Home Secretary and Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrat peer.
Lord Mandelson told The Independent today the new group is mainly a Conservative-inspired initiative, because that is where "activism" is needed. "Quite a number of Tory MPs are fed up with the hardliners grabbing all the limelight. David Cameron needs the other side of the argument – those with a pragmatic, balanced view of Europe – to get organised and speak up," he said.
Peter Wilding, the campaign's director, a former Tory head of communications in Europe, said: "We acknowledge the EU's shortcomings but far from leaving Europe, Britain should be leading in Europe. We are neither Europhile nor Europhobe but Eurorealist. As a country, we are more influential that we think. We can and do build alliances to entrench economic reform to help reform Europe."
Last night Tory Eurosceptics demanded the Government disclose its estimates of how many people from Bulgaria and Romania might come to Britain when they are allowed to live and work in the UK at the end of this year. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, told the BBC's Sunday Politics programme: "I've seen figures, I wasn't confident with those figures. I've asked for a further explanation and when I've got that explanation and when I feel confident about the figures then I'll talk about the figures."
Mr Pickles admitted an influx could add to housing problems. But there was confusion in Whitehall over the figures to which he referred.
Ed Miliband announced yesterday that Labour would not offer a referendum at the 2015 election. He told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show that Mr Cameron was being "incredibly dangerous" because he was "sleepwalking us towards the exit door of the EU". The Labour leader said: "The last thing we should do is start saying for some date five, six, seven years hence, let's decide now to have a referendum."
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