David Cameron, leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and (barring some miraculous recovery in Labour’s fortunes) the country’s future prime minister, at least seems to be someone who keeps his promises. This week, as he promised three years ago when elected leader, he took his party’s delegation to the European parliament into a new group, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.

Readers will recall that this month’s European parliament election, amidst low turnout and general disinterest, produced gains for the main centre-right grouping, the European People’s Party. The EPP brings together most of the EU’s mainstream conservative and Christian democrat
parties: Germany’s CDU, France’s Gaullists, Italy’s Forza Italia, Spain’s People’s Party, and so on.

Britain’s Conservatives, being much less enamoured of the European ideal, have long had an uneasy relationship with this group. They remained independent until the 1990s, when the group was broadened to European People’s Party-European Democrats in order to accommodate them and the Danish conservatives. Now the Tories have bolted again, forming a new Eurosceptic group of their own.

To be recognised in the European parliament, a group needs to have at least 25 MPs from at least seven member states. The Tories have 26 on their own, so the first requirement is no problem, but getting the required breadth has taken some work.

In reality, the new group is a coalition of just three parties: the Conservatives, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and the Czech Civic Democratic Party. Single MPs from another five countries make up the total of 55.

Since the EPP remains the largest European group, and the Conservatives and Reformists promise to work closely with them anyway, the split’s effect on the European parliament is likely to be marginal. The real interest is in what it says about Cameron’s strategy as Tory leader.

In most respects, Cameron has been steadily shifting his party away from the hard right: he has emphasised his environmental credentials, downplayed the party’s legacy of Thatcherism, and regularly describes himself as a “liberal“. Just yesterday his party made a strong stand in the House of Commons to support a more far-reaching enquiry into the Iraq war.

Then new Conservatives and Reformists Group sits uneasily with that trend, to put it mildly. Its other components are a mix of nationalists, religious fundamentalists, greenhouse denialists and other oddballs.

But that’s how politics works. Major parties always represent a broad coalition of views, and to play relentlessly to just one side is to court disaster. Cameron has chosen an issue on which he evidently feels he can do something to keep his right wing happy without risking anything important in the main game of domestic politics.

The move is not going to make the Tories any more popular in the rest of Europe. But Cameron may well consider that a fair trade for a more united party and a smoother path to the prime ministership.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey