Tory disarray over Europe

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Indy Politics

The Conservative Party's campaign for Thursday's European and local elections was in disarray last night as its dormant divisions over Europe erupted in public again.

Michael Howard was caught in the crossfire as Tory Europhiles accused him of running a negative anti-Brussels campaign and a Tory member of the European Parliament endorsed the policy of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to repeal the 1972 Act of Parliament that took Britain into the EU.

The in-fighting eclipsed an attempt by Mr Howard to stem an apparent haemorrhage of Tory support to UKIP by recalling how Margaret Thatcher fought Britain's corner in Europe. In a keynote speech in Bristol, the Tory leader said that saying "no" to the EU did not mean withdrawing from it, as UKIP advocates.

Citing Baroness Thatcher's successful campaign to win a rebate on Britain's EU budget contributions, Mr Howard said: "She was told that there was nothing that could be done about the fact that Britain paid more than her fair share of the total EU budget. People said to her 'you'll never get our money back from Europe'. ... Look what happened: Britain got her rebate, which is still being paid to this day.

"People said the same sort of thing to us about the euro. They told us: 'if you don't join, you won't survive on your own'. We didn't accept that. The Conservatives, again, said no. The truth is if you stand up for what you believe in, you can get things done in Europe."

His attempt to steady Tory nerves was, however, overshadowed when Roger Helmer, a Eurosceptic MEP, called for Britain to seek "associate membership" of the EU. He called the rise of UKIP "an historic development, a seismic change" and a "wake-up call" for the Tories. Mr Helmer said: "The party leadership has been trying to bridge the gap between the old dinosaurs - Clarke and Heseltine - and the vast bulk of the members and activists. But in the effort to keep a few distinguished Europhiles onside, we are letting party activists and the public slip away."

Later he was forced by the Tory high command to clarify his remarks, saying: "People should vote Conservative on June 10. I do not support withdrawal from the European Union. I am advocating a more open and flexible relationship for Britain in the EU."

Tory Europhiles warned that the party leadership had played into UKIP's hands by giving the impression Britain was continuously under threat from Brussels. Ian Taylor, a former minister and close ally of Kenneth Clarke, said the Tories should start to focus on the positive aspects of EU membership. He said: "We imply that it is us versus that lot 'over there'. If that's the case, then the only logical conclusion is that we should withdraw ...The way to undermine UKIP is to persuade the British people of the virtues of EU membership."

The divisions also blunted a Tory attack on Tony Blair for being the "invisible man" of the Labour campaign. Mr Howard has featured in all four Labour broadcasts while Mr Blair has not appeared, fuelling Tory claims of a negative campaign by Labour.

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, accused Labour of "telling lies" in its broadcast last night, after it claimed that the Conservatives would cut spending on police, education and health. "The Labour Party prefers to fight old battles because it cannot reconcile itself to admitting that Conservative spending on the NHS and schools matches its own," he said.