A large part of David Cameron’s job, of course, is getting the balance right between keeping his traditional base of supporters happy, while simultaneously also appearing appealing to enough others to vote for him. In striking this balance, generally his strategy as leader has been to prioritise appealing to the new voters he needs, “detoxing” the Conservative brand, and generally trying to end the image of “the nasty party”. Part of this calculation, similarly to Tony Blair in this respect if not in others, is surely that those on the extreme had nowhere else to go.
So declaring as he did this week that Conservative MEPs after June’s European elections will not sit as part of the European People’s Party (EPP, the main-centre grouping containing most of Europe’s governing parties) to seek an alliance with others who do not share its “federalist” ambitions, appears to go against this strategy. (Whether the EPP really is federalist or not is another question, but it’s close enough for British Conservatives of a not very internationalist bent). It does look very much as though the British Conservatives will end up in a group with some rather odd, and generally very right-wing partner parties.
But presumably Cameron and Hague have made the calculation that to the Conservatives’ core support, being “in bed with federalists” is the sort of thing that renders them spluttering into apoplexy over their Telegraph and cornflakes in the morning - whereas to the population generally, which alphabet soup of foreigners some people that they’ve never heard of sit with, is simply meaningless.
And I have to say I am starting to wonder if they might not be right. The risk they run is that opposition parties such as ourselves are able to paint the Conservatives in these European elections (and of course more importantly set the tone for next year’s General Election) as somehow in league with some very unsavoury people. And this is certainly not unjust.
But I wonder, quite simply, how much this resonance this really has with the average British voter. If I recall correctly we campaigned a few years ago to tell the public that the Conservatives were in league with Alleanza Nazionale (the Italian post-fascist party). But quite frankly I don’t think many British voters cared much.
And perhaps more psephologically importantly, on this one occasion, those to his right do have somewhere else to go: UKIP, the BNP and any other parties who will be attacking the Conservatives from the right, for being too integrationist-minded.
So maybe it is the right strategic thing for them to do. But there must surely be a risk that some normal people - those he needs to vote him into Downing St next year - do actually notice. And remember.
And it surely is odd that at the same time as he is doing his best to get the Conservatives to come over as normal people, he feels the need to leap into the arms of some thoroughly un-normal people, just to escape company which even Margaret Thatcher kept - and that was at a time when real leaps forward in integrating European policy and lawmaking were actually on the table.