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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Troubles abroad

The Tories may be enjoying a substantial lead in the opinion polls but their divisions over Europe could well derail their attempt to capitalise on that when we come to elect MEPs in June. They also underline how far David Cameron still has to travel to put the chaos of the Major years behind him, albeit that this particular mess is of his own making.

Today's Observer reports that in an attempt to find an alternative to the centre right European People's Party the Tories have held talks about teaming up in the European parliament with a nationalist Latvian party, some of whose members attend ceremonies to commemorate the Waffen SS. This has dismayed pro-European Conservatives who believe such an approach will leave the party isolated on the world stage:

However, the search for new partners has run into difficulty after this weekend's edition of the Economist reported Hague's recent talks with the Latvians. The magazine notes that the party includes "hardline nationalists who attend ceremonies to commemorate a Latvian unit of Waffen SS troops".

It argues that, while the Latvians say that their Waffen SS heroes were patriots fighting against Soviet Russia, not Nazi war criminals, such explanations will be hard to sell to British voters. "Try explaining that distinction in a British election campaign," the Economist says.

Ian Taylor, the Tory MP for Esher and Walton and chairman of the Conservative Group for Europe, refused to discuss the Latvian connection but made clear his disquiet. "I am disappointed that the decision has been made to leave the EPP. We need strong alliances in Europe if we are to have influence and we need those alliances to be with people who reflect well on the Conservative party. This is particularly so as we will be under close inspection from a whole series of people watching everything we do."

A leading Tory MEP, who refused to be named, described the decision to quit the EPP as "crazy", saying that the Conservatives were dabbling on the "wild fringes" of European politics.

It is possible that Cameron's attempts to stuff the Tory MEP Group with wild-eyed Euro-sceptics and to seek alliances with some of the more off-beat European parties may cause huge problems within his party and his shadow Cabinet where Kenneth Clarke is understood to take a more moderate approach. It could also impact on the party's electoral support.
Gleeful as I am to see the Tories making such a hash of things in the European Parliament, I wonder if one person in 10,000 gives a monkeys about the EPP-Tory split nor will it affect the votes of anyone but a tiny, politically obessed minority, of whom I am one.
It is a fair question. I suppose it depends on the extent to which they can internalise any rows and also on the impact on voters of any dealings with parties perceived to be dodgy and how much publicity this gets. That is why this particular episode could be significant.
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