Ashley Fox: UKIP will be muzzled by a commitment to renegotiation
In the South West our main opponents at the European elections in June 2009 will be UKIP.
In 1999 the Conservatives had a good result in the South West, taking 41.7% of the vote and 4 of the 7 MEPs. This fell to 31.6% in 2004, when we elected only 3 MEPs. Over the same period, UKIP's vote rose 12%, from 10.6% in 1999 to 22.6% in 2004.
For a detailed analysis of the figures you can visit Wikipedia. However, you don't have to be a genius to work out that most of UKIP's gains came at our expense.
In 2009 the South West will elect only 6 MEPs, so were we to repeat our poor 2004 performance we would end up with only 2 MEPs. UKIP would also take 2, with Labour and the LibDems having 1 each.
Given the system of PR used in the European elections our only hope of retaining three MEPs is to take one of UKIP's seats. We therefore need a strategy to deal with their appeal to the electorate. Whilst their garish yellow and purple posters might be offensive to the eye, it would be foolish to dismiss them merely as "gadflies" or worse.
In my experience there are two sorts of people who vote UKIP. The first, smaller, group genuinely want us to leave the EU. They are implacable in their hostility to the EU and there is little point in trying to persuade them.
The second, larger, group is made up of disenchanted Conservative (and a few Labour & LibDem) supporters who no longer believe that we or any of the other parties represent their views on Europe.
They are happy to belong to the single market but want nothing to do with the march towards political union they see taking place within the EU at the moment. They do not want a Common Defence Policy, nor a Common Foreign Policy, do not want the Charter of Fundamental rights to change the way our legal system works, never want to join the Euro and, if possible, would love to see the end of both the Social Chapter and the Common Fisheries Policy.
In short, the people we need to attract to our cause share much in common with traditional Conservative Party supporters. This is perhaps not surprising as probably most of UKIP's voters were traditional Conservative Party supporters 10 - 15 years ago.
So my view is that to win back the support of the voters who deserted us in 2004 we need a traditional Conservative message of opposition to political union. We must explain not only why we oppose the Lisbon treaty but also how we will set about undoing it were it to be ratified without a referendum.
To date, the Party leadership has said that they will do all they can to force the government to hold a referendum. Should this not succeed then "we would not let the matter rest there". I agree.
We need to promise that when we come to office we will hold a referendum on the treaty, even if that is a retrospective referendum. The purpose of such a vote would be to give David Cameron the moral authority to go to Brussels with the mandate to renegotiate those parts of the Lisbon Treaty that do not have the popular support of the British people.
Many of our opponents say renegotiation is impossible. They said the same of Margaret Thatcher when she set out to negotiate our budget rebate. What we require is the political will to do it.
I want Britain to stay in the EU, yet I fear that if the EU continues on its present path towards political union it will lose yet more support in Britain. That is why I want the Conservative Party to fight the next European elections committed to renegotiating the Lisbon Treaty and putting an end to any thought that Britain will participate in political union. We will then have a policy that will command the support of the British people and will be in our nation's interests.