Tories struggle to sell policies under shadow of Europe

By Ian Dunt

The Conservatives are desperately trying to promote their ‘Get Britain Working’ agenda despite persistent questions over the Lisbon treaty.

David Cameron’s team are struggling to prevent the furore over the treaty derailing the start of the Conservative conference in Manchester. Their primary tactic so far has been to release concrete policies and direct all media attention towards them rather than the nagging issues raised by Europe.

But the debate, which was triggered by Irish voters’ acceptance of the treaty, refuses to die down.

An announcement by Goerge Osborne this afternoon promising tax cuts to start-up firms employing new personnel did produce headlines, however.

Mr Cameron had promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty once he came to power, but only if it was not already in force.

Now that only the Czech Republic and Poland have yet to ratify it appears likely the treaty will be set in stone by the time of the next general election. But eurosceptics are still calling on the Tory leader to promise a referendum no matter what the status of the treaty.

William Hague addressed the issue directly today as he took to the podium to deliver a blistering speech to the party faithful.

To loud applause he lambasted the British government’s refusal to hold a referendum on the treaty.

“It is right that we voted for a referendum and right that we still want to hold a referendum,” he told the conference.

He promised delegates that a Conservative government would amend the 1972 Civil Communities Act so that no further powers could be transferred to Europe without a referendum of the British people.

The Act incorporated European community law into the domestic legal order of the UK.

But Boris Johnson, whose comments in the Sunday Times calling for a referendum, especially “if the upshot of the Lisbon Treaty is going to produce president Blair”, notably failed to mention the topic during his rapturously recieved speech today.

The absence of any mention of Europe will fuel rumours the London Mayor was rebuked by Mr Cameron for his explicit statements on the subject over the weekend.

All eyes are now on Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic and a fierce eurosceptic and patriot. Analysts say everything now rests on personal communications between Mr Cameron and Mr Klaus.

If the Czech president can put off ratification until Mr Cameron arrives in Number 10 the pair could derail the entire European project together.

But Mr Cameron is unlikely to welcome such a development. Tory rhetoric on Lisbon has been notably downbeat of late, as party strategists grow increasingly concerned that the party could tear itself apart on the issue just as it regains power.

Outside of the conference centre today, a small group of Ukip activists set up banners calling for a referendum and chanted: ‘Give us a referendum Dave’.

Meanwhile, Tory HQ was desperately trying to turn the media’s attention to incapacity benefits, which would be cut in order to fund Mr Cameron’s ‘Get Britain Working’ agenda.

People on incapacity benefit who are deemed fit to work after a thorough series of tests would be put on jobseekers’ allowance, thereby cutting their weekly claim by £25.

Private firms would then receive government contracts to get them into work. The plan would replace the New Deal.

The release of the scheme prompted the government to announce plans to tackle Britain’s growing unemployment.

Under the Labour plans, said to secure 750,000 people back in employment by next year, those out of work for longer than six months would be forced to take a work experience placement regardless of whether they wanted to or not.