Hague heads for Brussels to avoid split with MEPs

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William Hague has said he would try to avoid a damaging split with Tory MEPs over the pledge by David Cameron to force them to leave the main Conservative grouping in the European Parliament.

The rift threatens to wreck the smooth launch of Mr Cameron's leadership, and revive old splits between eurosceptics and europhiles in the Tory Party. Some leading MEPs have warned they will not obey Mr Cameron if he insists on them sitting with Italian fascists or hardline eurosceptics such as the UK Independence Party, who want to pull Britain out of the EU.

The new shadow Foreign Secretary will go to Brussels to defuse the row with the Tory MEPs led by Tim Kirkhope and Sir Robert Atkins, who are opposed to leaving the European People's Party that the eurosceptic Bruges Group calls "avowedly federalist".

Mr Hague has been given enhanced authority by Mr Cameron to deputise for him at Prime Minister's Questions when Mr Cameron and Tony Blair are away, putting him against John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Hague joked that he must be "barmy" to return to front-line politics, abandoning some of his declared interests worth £800,000 a year.

"It is a rare moment in the Conservative Party," he said. "I think David Cameron has the most fantastic potential as leader. He deserves the old-timers like me getting involved again and helping him out."

He said he would be holding talks over a compromise plan to create a new Conservative grouping in the European Parliament.

He added that Mr Cameron had put his decision to withdraw from the EPP "very clearly in the leadership election. We will stick to that commitment".

However, Mr Hague added: "We will also consult with all the parties across Europe, our existing allies and other parties, and aim to form a new grouping in the European Parliament.

"I will be embarking on consultations about that which will take months rather than weeks."