London (CNSNews.com) - British opposition leader William Hague's attempts to present a unified and strong Conservative Party during this week's annual conference are being hampered by a bitter internal wrangle over the party's position on closer integration with Europe.
On the conference platform in Blackpool, and at fringe meetings outside the main program, senior members are engaged in a fierce battle over party policy. "Europe" has crept into almost every speech and debate.
Several members of Hague's shadow cabinet are firmly "Euroskeptic," and have warned that a future European "superstate" will curtail Britain's sovereignty. Some are pressing for a renegotiation of key treaties governing the terms of European Union membership.
Shadow foreign secretary John Maples, for example, said the next Conservative government would work for the EU's founding treaty to be amended to give each member the right to opt-out of a particular piece of European legislation.
"No longer will Britain be bound by every anti-business, nanny state, interfering regulation dreamt up by the [European] Commission," he said, and was rewarded by a standing ovation.
Views of Tories wary of Europe range from those who for economic reasons oppose exchanging the pound sterling for a common EU currency, to ardent nationalists who feel Britain should pull out of the EU completely.
They point to high taxes, high costs, state interference and over-regulation as the type of problems prevalent in Europe. EU regulations and restrictions have in particular severely affected the British agricultural sector in recent years.
Upping the temperature on this side of the debate, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told a fringe meeting that Britain's biggest problems during her lifetime had originated in mainland Europe.
Although Hague and others said afterwards she had clearly been referring to the two World Wars, one Conservative former foreign secretary warned that such unqualified statements could badly damage British interests abroad by painting the country as \ldblquote prejudiced and anti-European.\rdblquote
Two leading former cabinet ministers, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, have led the "Europhile" counter-attack, warning that what they see as the party's right-wing tilt could make it unelectable.
Both men are due to lend their backing next week to the high-profile launch of a cross-party "Britain in Europe" campaign, which Prime Minister Tony Blair will also support.
Hague has been caught in the middle of the tussle. Official Tory policy on the single European currency is one of opposition during the lifetime of the next parliament - supposing the Conservatives win the next general election - but leaving the option open beyond that.
But some "Euroskeptics" have been urging Hague to declare a policy of never joining the EU currency.
On the other hand, "Europhiles" want to press the party leader to agree to join the euro during the next parliament, if economic conditions are right - a policy currently shared by the Blair government. Clarke and Heseltine may lead such a campaign, risking an open clash with Hague.
Clarke told a fringe "Europhile" gathering in Blackpool that anti-European elements were pushing the party to a more and more "extreme" position.
"Many of them go beyond [opposition to] the single currency and are obviously opposed to Britain's continued membership of the European Union," he declared. "For tactical reasons, they cloak their real position in the language of renegotiating the treaties."
At another meeting, Heseltine warned that "faintly at first, but with growing confidence, the 'Britain Out' brigade are inching our party towards a policy of incalculable folly."