UK Conservatives flex muscles but Europe tensions simmer

4th October 2015, Comments 0 comments

Britain's Conservatives begin their annual conference on Sunday, seemingly buoyant after an unexpected electoral triumph -- but old divisions on Europe are re-surfacing while a battle to succeed David Cameron is looming.

Facing growing pressure from eurosceptic MPs within the centre-right party, Cameron on Sunday refused to rule out campaigning for a British exit from the European Union.

Cameron said he could not "guarantee" that his attempt to renegotiate the terms of Britain's EU membership would be successful ahead of a planned in-or-out referendum due to be held by 2017.

"If I can't get the things that Britain needs, then I don't rule anything out in terms of the role that I would play because we do need these changes," he told BBC television.

Cameron also defended his plan to slash welfare, as tens of thousands of anti-austerity campaigners and trade unionists prepared to rally outside the conference in Manchester, northwest England.

Jeremy Corbyn, the main opposition Labour Party's new hard-left leader who was elected last month, is expected to take part in the anti-Conservative events on Monday.

The congress comes after a victory -- albeit with a slim majority -- in the May general election, which allowed Cameron to form the first all-Conservative government since 1997.

"Conservatives will be in very good spirit," said Duncan O'Leary, research director at the Demos think-tank.

Tim Bale, a professor of political science at Queen Mary University in London, said Conservatives see the new Labour leader as "unelectable".

"It gives the Conservatives slightly more freedom to fall out with each other without risking a decline in popularity," he told AFP.

"I think that this freedom might be abused by some people," such as the hardline eurosceptics who are planning to vote against EU membership.

"You can already see the people who are obsessed with this issue beginning to crank up the pressure on David Cameron," he said.

- 'Cracks will emerge' -

Cameron has said he will push for broad changes including protecting sovereignty, opting out of the EU's commitment to "ever closer union", limiting access to benefits for migrants, and boosting competitiveness.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph newspaper, he described his bilateral negotiations with EU leaders as "bloody hard work".

Although most Conservative lawmakers are waiting to see the result of the negotiations before they decide which way to vote "cracks will begin to emerge", O'Leary said.

Ahead of the conference, Nigel Lawson, a finance minister under former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, said he would head a campaign by Conservatives who want to leave the EU.

Former Conservative prime minister John Major has said the battle with restive eurosceptics nearly destroyed the Conservatives when he was in power in the 1990s.

The other issue underlying the conference is who will succeed Cameron ahead of the next general election in 2020, after the prime minister said he would not seek a third mandate.

"It's obvious that (finance minister) George Osborne is at the moment in pole position... but things can change quite quickly," Bale said.

Observers say that it will be between Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson, even if other names have been mooted, like Home Secretary Theresa May and Business Secretary Sajid Javid.

"Boris Johnson is more popular with the public but George Osborne is more popular with the Conservative Party membership and it's ultimately the membership who decide who the next leader is," said O'Leary.

While he bides his time, Osborne is unlikely to pass up the opportunity to boast about his pet "Northern Powerhouse" project for economic development in Manchester.


© 2015 AFP

0 Comments To This Article