Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman strode into the room with firm handshake at the ready, steely glint in his eye and free copies of his book Time to Jump (out of the EU.) The cover, he explained, showed “a British lobster being boiled alive by Brussels”.
You didn’t even need to ask him to sign your copy; the pen was out immediately.
The MEP for the Eastern Counties had brought together the first gathering of the clans. This, the “alternatives to EU membership” conference was, he beamed, “the first time the eurosceptics have all come together to present a positive case for being outside the EU”.
Everyone did indeed seem present and correct.
Waiting to speak was Ukip’s man, William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth. Conference chairman Tim Montgomerie, founder of the ConservativeHome website, was “delighted” to welcome Thomas Aeschi, of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). They don’t like the EU, the SVP, and they’re not that keen on the wrong type of immigrant either – hence their 2007 poster calling for the deportation of foreign criminals which depicted three white sheep standing on a Swiss flag and kicking away a solitary black sheep.
And poised in the front row, studiously taking notes, was the grandee of them all, relentless in his pursuit of Brussels since the days of Maastricht and “Up Yours Delors”: self-described constitutional expert Sir Bill Cash MP.
He is the esteemed author of Bill Cash’s European Journal, the “premier source of high quality Eurorealist analysis”. It certainly makes for scary reading – one headline warns about the “Dracula tax”, Brussels’ demand for £15m from the UK because apparently we hadn’t paid enough duty on garlic shipments.
And where had this gathering of the eurosceptic clans assembled? Why in the lair of the Dracula taxers themselves – Europe House in central London, HQ of the European Commission’s Representation to the UK.
“It’s quite a delicious irony,” grinned Mr Campbell Bannerman, trying to insist he wasn’t being mischievous. As he remembered fondly, this was once Conservative Central Office, where Margaret Thatcher waved from the window after her election victories.
Gazing from the podium, declaring himself a “great global Britisher”, Mr Campbell Bannerman, perhaps dreaming of victories of his own, told them: “I hope today will allow people to see through the scaremongering, the threats of pestilence, plague and disaster. Now we can consider – seriously, rationally and logically – leaving the EU.”
He reminded them of the “dreadful European Court of Justice overseeing UK trade”, of how we spend “£60m a day in EU fees – that’s enough for 81 new hospitals or 480 new schools every year.”
He didn’t tell them about CBI analysis suggesting that the net benefit of EU membership to the UK could be in the region of £62bn to £78bn a year, because, as he later patiently explained, that was “fantasy”.
Yes, he explained, some EU regulation was a Good Thing, but “after hundreds of years, I think Westminster is capable of working out whether pyjamas are toxic and flammable”.
He didn’t want us to fixate on toxic, flammable pyjamas. He wanted us to imagine a vision of a “far better, freer and more prosperous future outside the EU”.
There were many visions of sunlit Brussels-free uplands. But there were few takers for the Passport to the European Union booklets left in reception by the building’s permanent europhile residents.
There was warm applause and knowing laughter for “leading historian” Adrian Hilton, with his trot through the history of the EU.
Nothing had caused more bloodshed than “the attempt to rebuild a re-united Europe, one empire under one Empire”, the conservative academic proclaimed.
The EU had awarded the Charlemagne Award to the euro, he added incredulously. Charlemagne! What about the Saxons? “Massacred by Charlemagne in 782. They might just wonder why people were honouring a monster.”
There was a “sense of divine right” in this drive for European unity. To avoid malignant nationalism, the EU seemed to think we needed to be “administered by an overall supreme court, with one flag and working-time directives for doctors and environmental directives for the protection of bats”.
And then we let the grandee of Eurorealism, Mr Cash, tell us about out future if we stuck with the Dracula taxers.
“There is no alternative except moving to exit. There is more nationalism now. There is chaos, less peace, less democracy. There are riots, protests, economic instability,” he said.
“Implosion is imminent, or the alternative is irresponsible coercion of the kind being imposed on the Greeks now.”
What was that Mr Campbell Bannerman had said about “scaremongering, the threats of pestilence, plague and disaster”? No matter.
“I am damned if I am going to be called to order,” said Mr Cash, as the chairman reminded him to keep to time. “I can go on for a long time on this…”
They would gladly have listened to him all afternoon.