Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, last night warned Conservatives they faced their "last chance" to unite over Europe and pleaded with them not to make the election a "contest between those who are for Europe and those who are against Europe".
His attack on Euro-sceptics came on the eve of today's expected European Court interim ruling against the British government on the beef ban. Mr Hurd incensed the Tory right by defending the European Court, and the "fundamental principle" that, in the areas covered by the Treaties of Rome and Maastricht, "European law prevails over British law".
Bernard Jenkin, Tory MP for Colchester North, said: "Of course you need rules for the single market and you need a court to adjudicate on those rules", but European law was developing so that "our entire judicial and administrative system becomes answerable to institutions beyond national democratic control".
The court is likely today to reject all the Government's arguments, including its claim that the EU ban on worldwide beef exports is unlawful. The European Commission argues that if British beef were allowed out of the EU, it could be relabelled and reimported.
Mr Hurd attacked Tory MPs who had demanded a "beef election", saying: "For a few weeks the Prime Minister was actually urged by some to use diseased cows and contaminated feed as a patriotic rallying cry to bring him victory in the general election."
He told a Conservative Group for Europe dinner that they must not follow a "sincere but misguided section of our supporters into unreality and oblivion" - "though it is late", there was still a chance to "end the sourness and unite".
Ministers who call themselves "Euro-realists" said Mr Hurd's speech was "an attack on the Prime Minister". One said that framing the election campaign in terms of for and against Europe was a "specious juxtaposition - that is not the argument".
Mr Hurd was backed by another former Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe, who attacked the policy of non-cooperation. "We deceive ourselves if we believe that our beef bravado was the cause of the compromise that we had to accept," he told the same meeting. "We cannot be, and never will be, electorally successful as a Euro-sceptic party."
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