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Tory conference haunted by those old demons: sex and Europe

Tory conference haunted by those old demons: sex and Europe

🕔28.Sep 2014

Sex and Europe, two demons that run like a fault line through the Tory party, have struck again.

Just as David Cameron looked forward to coming to Birmingham in prime ministerial mode following Ed Miliband’s stuttering performance in Manchester, the political Gods intervened to make sure that this Conservative conference will be distracted by noises off.

A sex scandal is one thing, but the defection of another Tory MP to Ukip means that the really big question on everyone’s lips at Birmingham 2014 is…..who is going to jump ship next? The

For the Conservative party, the thorny issue of Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union resembles a particularly nasty strain of Japanese Knotweed; you think you’ve got rid of it but it eventually returns thicker than ever before.

The resignation of Brooks Newmark as Minister for Civil Society definitely comes from the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ catalogue of scandals.

Mr Newmark fell on his sword after he was caught sending an explicit photograph of himself to someone he thought was a woman over the internet, but who turned out to be a journalist operating an old fashioned Fleet Street sting.

It turns out that the hapless Mr Newmark, 56, a married father of five, is the founder of the Tory campaign ‘Women2Win’ which aims to get more women elected to parliament.

If the Newmark photo wasn’t bad enough – he was apparently exposing himself wearing paisley pyjamas – a second pre-conference incident with far more serious implications rocked Mr Cameron’s confidence when the aptly named Mark Reckless, Tory MP for Rochester and Strood, announced that he was quitting the Conservative party to join Ukip.

This will trigger a second difficult by-election for the Conservatives. Next month, former Tory MP Douglas Carswell is odds on to win back his Clacton seat, this time standing as a Ukip candidate.

In theory, Clacton and Rochester are safe Tory constituencies.

But with Nigel Farage and Ukip on something of a roll, and the public always willing to give immigration and Brussels a good booting, it would be brave punter who bet on the Conservatives retaining either seat at a by-election.

Both Carswell and Reckless have charged Mr Cameron with not being serious about reforming the EU and getting a better deal for Britain. They simply don’t believe he will ever sanction an in-out referendum if the Tories win the General Election.

This is a claim that has resonance among a great many Conservative MPs, not to mention a strong undercurrent of Tories who believe this country would be better off out of Europe.

Reckless, who announced his defection at Ukip’s conference at Doncaster racecourse, said voters felt “ripped off and lied to” over Europe and immigration.

They needed to believe that Britain had control over who came into the country and in what numbers. “At the moment we do not have any sense of that,” he said. He added: “I promise to cut immigration while treating people fairly and humanely. I cannot keep that promise as a Conservative. I can keep it as Ukip.”

We’ve been here before, of course. MPs and their peccadillos have a habit of disrupting Tory conferences. The 1983 gathering was stunned by the resignation of Trade and Industry Secretary Cecil Parkinson, architect of that year’s General Election victory, after it emerged that his mistress, Sarah Keays, was carrying his child.

At the 1993 conference, Prime Minister John Major had hardly finished delivering his back to basics speech, appealing for a return to old fashioned values, than a series of Conservative ministers were revealed to have been caught up in sexual and financial scandals. It was back to basics, but not as Mr Major envisaged.

These included disclosure of Tim Yeo’s extra-marital affair which resulted in him fathering a ‘love child’, revelations about the private life of Steve Norris, the resignation of Northern Ireland Minister Michael Mates, who had been found lobbying on behalf of disgraced businessman Asil Nadir, and the resignation as a PPS of Alan Duncan who made an illicit purchasing deal on a council house.

Major, it subsequently turned out, to the utter astonishment of the political world, had conducted a four-year affair with MP and Minister Edwina Currie from 1984 to 1988.

Back to basics was in itself partly a response by Major to the Tory civil war of 1990 to 1993, which saw the party rip itself apart in public over European integration as set out in the Maastricht Treaty.

And, inevitably, Europe is the backdrop to Birmingham 2014 however much Mr Cameron would like it to be otherwise.

Party chair Grant Shapps opened the conference to a not quite full Symphony Hall. Behind him sat 60-odd youngish people dressed in Team 2015 sweat shirts, who turned out to be the shock troops for next year’s election.

The audience, significantly, contained a larger number of younger people and representatives from the ethnic minorities than in the past, and Mr Shapps pointed out that one third of Tory election candidates are women.

Rather than ignore the events of the past few days, Shapps was straight on the attack describing Mr Reckless’s behaviour as a “betrayal”. He went further, claiming that Reckless had “lied and lied and lied” about his commitment to the Conservative party before finally jumping ship to Ukip.

At the end of a tub-thumping speech designed to rouse the party faithful to the task ahead, which included fulsome praise for Birmingham Northfield Tory candidate Racheal Maclean, the purpose of the young men and women in sweat shirts became clear. As Mr Shapps concluded, the shock troops arose as one in a ‘spontaneous’ standing ovation.

And so, although not quite so enthusiastically, did the audience.

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