Exclusive: Tory rebels form new Eurosceptic group

 

Conservative MPs have defied David Cameron by forming a new Eurosceptic group to keep up the pressure on him to redefine Britain's relationship with the European Union.

In a provocative act, they are calling themselves the "81 Group" – a reference to the 81 Tories who rebelled last week by demanding a referendum on Europe. While Mr Cameron had hoped that the biggest backbench revolt of his premiership was a one-off, the sceptics are warning that it was only a start and are determined to maintain the momentum.

Their key demand will be for Mr Cameron to start to claw back some powers from Brussels – and not to shelve the issue until after the next general election in the face of Liberal Democrat opposition.

Mark Pritchard, one of those involved in the new group, told The Independent: "I hope the Government does not think it can kick the repatriation of powers into the elephant grass. The scale of last week's support for a more robust Euroscepticism shows that any long grass will be mowed down."

The group held its first meeting yesterday, when it agreed to be a "bottom up" organisation. It is confident of attracting support of centre-left as well as traditionalist Tory MPs. Its numbers could exceed 100 since some Tories are believed to regret not joining last week's rebellion. The group describes itself as the "new face of Conservative Euroscepticism" – and "not the Tory right".

Mr Pritchard, secretary of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs and MP for The Wrekin, said: "It is not a formal grouping, a faction or a party within a party but an informal caucus of like-minded MPs from both the left and right of the party who want to put the country first."

The new organisation may not stage a rebellion next week when the Commons debates the EU budget for 2014-2020 because ministers are opposing the European Commission's plans to boost spending by 5 per cent.

It is also trying to build bridges with the Liberal Democrats to try to persuade Nick Clegg to back Mr Cameron's attempt to grab back some powers on employment laws and fisheries policy.

However, the creation of the new group will dismay Cameron allies. The Prime Minister regards calls for a referendum as a distraction from the immediate task of resolving the crisis in the eurozone. But passions are running high on the Tory back benches.

The Greek government's surprise decision to call a referendum on the bailout has only fuelled the Tory demands for the British public to be given a say. Julian Lewis, MP, said: "If the Greeks can have a referendum on Europe, why can't we?" Nadine Dorries, Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire, said the setting up of the 81 Group was a sign that more rebellions are on the cards. "What happened last Monday night was historic in terms of parliamentary tradition and is worthy of being honoured in the same way as the 1922 [Committee]," she said.

Some of those involved in the new group do not favour Britain's withdrawal from the EU but want to downgrade the relationship to one based on free trade.

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