By Beth Rigby
Pro-European Conservatives have set up a group to press the case for Britain’s place in Europe in an attempt to redress the party’s rabid euroscepticism.
The Mainstream Conservatives, led by Laura Sandys, will campaign for a “Yes” vote to membership of the European Union in a future referendum and will also offer a pro-European perspective on issues spanning trade and investment, the environment and justice.
A dozen MPs, including former cabinet ministers Stephen Dorrell and Caroline Spelman, have put themselves forward as spokespeople.
The new group will act as a counterpoint to the Fresh Start Group, led by Andrea Leadsom, Chris Heaton-Harris and George Eustice, which is pressing for a whole raft of powers to be wrested back from Europe. Fresh Start claim to have the support of more than 100 backbenchers.
“We have got to get more involved in the debate,” Ms Sandys told the Financial Times. “We have allowed the Conservative party to be seen as anti-European but there is a big cohort of pro-European backbenchers.”
Laura Sandys is daughter of Duncan Sandys, a prominent pro-European Tory of the 1950s.
Until now, it has been left to grandees Ken Clarke and Lord Heseltine to press the case for Europe. Some pro-Europeans have felt cowed into silence by the fear of a backlash in the Tory press and from local party activists if they appear too supportive of the EU.
Those concerns were underscored last month when only 15 of 25 signatories to a pro-European letter were prepared to have their names published.
Ms Sandys said Europe-friendly colleagues had felt emboldened by Mr Cameron’s Europe speech last month, in which the prime minister set out plans for a referendum but also reaffirmed his belief that it was in Britain’s self-interest to remain part of the EU.
David Cameron is under pressure from all sides and faces a delicate balancing act in attempting to renegotiate an acceptable UK membership settlement with the EU
“Our job is to keep the tone of [Cameron’s] speech going,” said Ms Sandys. “Ultimately we must ensure that investors see these views backing a Britain in Europe go across political parties.”
Mr Cameron’s decision to offer a referendum came after months of pressure from his eurosceptic rightwing coupled with the growing popularity of the UK Independence Party.
Mainstream Conservatives is the second pro-European group to set up in recent weeks: last month, Mr Clarke, Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, and Lord Mandelson set up The Centre for British Influence to “fight europhobia”.
Mr Cameron put his European strategy into effect when he spearheaded a cut in the EU budget for the first time in its history, teaming up with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in the face of French resistance.
Margot James, a pro-European backbencher who will speak on trade and investment for the Mainstream Conservatives, said the seven-year deal to cut the EU budget was a “good result hard won”.
“Insane for EU states to be cutting budgets whilst Brussels budget climbs, PM did very well to stem the tide, power shifting away from France,” she tweeted on Friday.
Here are the members:
Laura Sandys Membership & Energy
Margot James Trade, Inward Investment & Single Market
Robert Buckland General & Justice
Caroline Spelman CAP, CFP & Environment
Richard Ottaway International Relations
Ben Wallace Security & Justice
Neil Carmichael Science, Single Market & Environment
Bob Walter Security & Defence
Peter Luff Defence
Ben Gummer Democracy & Institutional Reform
Stephen Dorrell Health
Tim Yeo Environment and Energy