Ahead of a general election which could prompt a referendum on Britain leaving the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron has become the latest Conservative leader struggling to hold his party together over Europe.
Cameron has been hit by the defection of two MPs to the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of the Conservative Party conference this week, leading to louder rhetoric on what has long been an open wound.
The prime minister told the BBC on Tuesday that he felt “about a thousand times more strongly about our UK” than the European Union and would argue for staying in a reformed Europe only for “pragmatism”.
“If I thought that it wasn’t in Britain’s interests to be in the EU I wouldn’t argue for us to be in it,” he told another interviewer.
But the bickering within the party has not stopped and was evident in Birmingham at this, the party’s last conference before elections in May 2015.
“I think at the end of the day, we have got no alternative but to get out,” said one delegate, Christopher Sills, attending a packed meeting entitled “How To Achieve Sweeping Reform In Europe”.
“They want to go down the route of becoming a European superstate, France, Germany and all that,” he said.
Last year, Cameron promised a referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union in 2017 if he wins the general election outright, in a bid to placate his restive party.
Roger Kendrick, another delegate, predicted that Britain would remain in Europe following a referendum.
“I think we’ll probably stay in and it will be a disaster,” he said.
“I’m not against Europe as such — the problem is in my view (that) Europe is about regulation and harmonisation.”
Delegates were being asked by a TV show to vote by posting balls into two glass containers on whether they would stay in the EU or leave.
The number of balls in the jars looked about evenly split.
Divisions over Europe could render it even harder for Cameron, whose centre-right party leads a coalition government and is trailing the main opposition Labour in opinion polls, to win a second term.
There is pressure too on the prime minister from those who definitely want to stay in Europe, like British businesses which issue regular polls and reports showing the benefits of membership.
The Conservatives have been split into europhile and europhobe factions for decades.
The current intake of MPs have a strongly europhobic flavour, partly because many are younger figures with ideologies shaped under “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, whose battles with Brussels have entered Tory folklore.
But an older generation of europhiles remains, warning of the dangers of obsessing about the EU in public.
Ken Clarke, whose career as a senior minister spanned three decades before he stepped down this year, said the Conservatives needed to “stop banging on about Europe”.
He urged a “sensible” debate, not “the neurotic one which has rather dominated our party for the last 20 years and in my opinion is the principal reason why we’ve failed to win an election for two decades.”
This is easier said than done with UKIP on the rise after a stunning success in this year’s European Parliament elections in which it won the biggest share of the vote of any party.
Some eurosceptics say that, in order to steady the ship, Cameron needs to outline a clear strategy before the general election on how he intends to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe, a promised precursor to the referendum.
But Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has ruled this out, saying that the process of negotiation would necessarily be one of “give and take”.
Commentators say the tension is likely to drag on unresolved until 2017 and beyond.
“It won’t fully resolve itself ever. The Tories will remain divided on Europe for a very long time and even going into that potential referendum in 2017, they will be divided,” said Mats Persson, director of think-tank Open Europe.
“It may actually be if they don’t handle this properly in 2017, the party may literally split into two — that’s the danger. I don’t think it would happen but it is a risk.”