Whisper: no surrender

The Tories' new "bland" Euroscepticism faces its first challenge

If there is one subject that is guaranteed to clench a Tory buttock more than grammar schools, it is Europe (along, of course, with immigration and inheritance tax). In his successful leadership campaign, David Cameron made one memorable commitment: to remove his Conservative MEPs from the European People's Party group in the European Parliament. Talk has intensified that all this may have been just a tactic to win over the right of the party at a time when a Cameron victory looked a distant dream.

The leadership has already incensed many in the rank and file by announcing a delay in the grand departure from the EPP for two more years. The official excuse is that the Czech Civic Democrats, with whom the Tories have signed a deal, say they will help them build a new alliance only after the European elections in 2009. So, given his propensity to discard uncomfortable policies, and with Tony Blair's last European summit days away, where exactly does Cameron stand on Europe?

The Conservative Research Department has long been a hotbed of Euroscepticism: indeed, there was a time when asking a girl where she stood on Europe was considered to be an acceptable chat-up line in the Tories' Westminster watering hole, the Marquis of Granby. In these surroundings, to accuse someone of being pro-European is worse than accusing someone of beating up blind orphans. Under Cameron, these passions have been abated. Green issues and social responsibility are more in vogue, and among the slightly younger generation of MPs there is a reluctance to say much about it at all.

"We watched William Hague learn to his cost in 2001," says a Cameron aide. "Europe is not a vote winner; you will not catch Dave holding up pound coins for photo ops." The line on Europe will instead be steady, calculated and rather bland, to the chagrin of old-school Eurosceptics, whose threats to defect to the UK Independence Party are not taken lightly.

Frau Frump

One further irritant is the poor relations with Germany's ruling Christian Democrats. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, allegedly warned Cameron that she would freeze rela-tions with him if he did not show up at an EPP summit just before the December 2005 European Council meeting. Cameron did not attend, citing a diary commitment in Northern Ireland. "The fact is that relations between Merkel and Cameron have not been frozen," says a shadow minister, before conceding: "They are, however, disappointed."

One refreshingly candid female Tory press officer with an eye for detail says of Merkel: "No one who dresses like that should be able to insist we turn up at summits." (She could have been referring to any of Frau Merkel's recent G8 ensembles, but it was probably the sludge-green top teamed with an unfortunate trouser which sagged and clung in all the wrong places.)

Brown is already distancing himself from matters EU, preferring to talk about India, China and Africa. Cameron, too, is not going to fall into the trap of dealing with uncomfortable Euro issues when he could be talking about poverty in Calcutta. A Cameron aide says: "France and Germany still do matter terribly, and we believe that France is revived under [the new president, Nicolas] Sarkozy. But it is also a significant fact that because the Dutch have changed their views, new forces are emerging in Europe which have a different take, a take that is closer to ours."

Turn up the heat

Yet events will force Cameron's hand, just as they will Brown's, especially if Blair - for all his demands for opt-outs - agrees in principle to a reworked constitutional treaty. Tory sources say they will "turn up the heat" on Brown every day between now, this month's summit and an intergovernmental conference scheduled for the end of the year, when a constitutional treaty is likely to be finalised. Senior Tories say they will demand a referendum on any constitution that transfers significant powers to Brussels.

The word at Conservative headquarters is that Brown has deliberately kept the Treasury out of the loop on summit preparations and is relieved not to be going. With the Eurosceptic press urging the incoming prime minister not to "surrender", and to reverse Blair's "treachery", Brown is looking for as much wiggle room as he can to get out of anything Blair signs up to.

Whatever the tensions with Merkel, Tories are furious about what they see as a canard being spread by that invet erate Europhile MP, Denis MacShane, that Sarkozy is similarly dismissive of his UK centre-right counterpart. "It's utter rubbish," says one adviser. "Cameron has met Sarkozy twice now and they got on very well."

Cameron's official ardour for Sarko is matched by the numerous party HQ girls who consider Sarko's "strangely simian but Gallic glint" to be quite a heart-stopper.