Tories say they want to leave EU and prefer Boris to Cameron

Some 92 per cent of party believe PM's vetoing of a new EU treaty was his best moment, poll shows

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Indy Politics

A majority of Conservative Party members want Britain to leave the European Union. A poll of 1,566 party members, carried out for The Independent by the ConservativeHome website, shows that David Cameron delighted the Tory grassroots by vetoing a new EU treaty at this month's summit in Brussels.

But the survey also suggests that he may have created hopes of forging a more detached relationship with the EU that he may find difficult to fulfil – and that he will come under pressure from his party to continue to prove his Eurosceptic credentials. If he does, he would risk fuelling tensions with the Liberal Democrats and his fellow EU leaders. If he does not, he would upset many of his party's activists.

Some 54 per cent of Tory members say their ideal vision of the relationship is for the UK to leave the EU and sign up to a free trade agreement. Although that view is shared by a minority of Tory MPs, the poll suggests the party's grassroots is more in tune with the policy of Ukip, which wants Britain to pull out of the EU.

Meanwhile, 24 per cent of Tory members favour a more flexible relationship with the EU, with continued co-operation on key policy areas. Some 10 per cent say the UK should maintain its current relationship but ignore European laws which are not in the country's interests, while 5 per cent believe Britain should leave the EU and not seek any agreements with it.

Another 3 per cent think the Government should maintain the current relationship but not sign up to any more changes, and 2 per cent favour further integration with the EU while keeping the pound. Only 1 per cent want to join the euro and hand tax and spending powers to the European Parliament.

By a huge margin of 92 per cent to 5 per cent, Conservative members believe Mr Cameron was right to veto the treaty and 70 per cent regard it as his best moment since becoming Prime Minister. More than half (52 per cent) think it was as big a moment as Margaret Thatcher winning the rebate on Britain's EU contributions in 1984.

A majority (54 per cent) regard the veto as the start of Britain becoming "more detached" from the EU. Nine out of 10 believe Britain should look to trade freely with the emerging economies and worry less about Europe.

Only 15 per cent of Tory members share Liberal Democrat concerns that there are dangers in being outside the EU's inner group. Seven out of 10 think the veto has made the Liberal Democrats very unhappy and likely to be less co-operative coalition partners.

According to ConservativeHome, Mr Cameron's tough stance in Brussels has significantly boosted his standing among Conservative activists. His net satisfaction rating – the difference between the number satisfied and dissatisfied with his performance – has jumped from +45 points to +64 points since the summit. Last month he stood in eighth place in the Cabinet's popularity rankings but has now risen to third, behind Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary.

Nick Clegg, who publicly criticised Mr Cameron's actions at the summit, has seen his net rating among Tory members slump from -2 points to -52 points in the past month. Despite George Osborne's gloomy Autumn Statement in November, his net rating has risen from +35 points to +45 points.

However, the poll suggests that Tory members are not convinced that Mr Cameron is "one of us". Asked which politicians come closest to their own politics, Baroness Thatcher tops the list, with Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, in second place, followed by Ronald Reagan, the former US President; William Hague, the Foreign Secretary; Lord Tebbit, the former Tory chairman; David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary. Mr Cameron trails behind them.

More Tory members would like Mr Johnson (34 per cent) to succeed Mr Cameron as party leader rather than Mr Osborne (13 per cent). Mr Hague (27 per cent) and Mr Gove (18 per cent) are ahead of Mr Osborne in the leadership stakes. By a margin of 55 per cent to 36 per cent, Tory activists oppose the Coalition's plans, backed by Mr Cameron, to change the law to allow gay people to marry.