There are more than 20 fringe meetings dealing with the forthcoming referendum on leaving the EU at the four-day gathering in Manchester that starts tomorrow.
The schedule offers both ‘Challenging the Supremacy of EU Law’ and ‘Life After the European Union’.
The problem for British prime minister David Cameron is that while most of these events are likely to feature loud applause for those who want to take Britain out of the EU, he’s proposing to argue for staying in.
Having pacified Tory euro-sceptics in 2013 by promising the referendum, he now has to satisfy their demands for details of what exactly he is seeking to gain in his negotiations.
“He kicked it into the long grass,” said Joe Twyman, head of political research at polling organisation YouGov in London.
“But eventually, he’s got to go in and get his ball back and carry on playing. So he’s reluctantly heading towards the grass at the moment.”
Cameron’s official strategy is to win concessions from fellow EU leaders on the terms of Britain’s membership, and then hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether to remain in the EU or leave based on the outcome of those talks. He has made it clear that he wishes to push for Britain to stay in.
The main opposition Labour Party swung behind continued EU membership this week after initial uncertainty about the stance of new leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Cameron’s assurances have not been enough to pacify Tory lawmakers, who last month defeated a bid by Cameron to allow government officials to work in support of his position during the referendum campaign. He has also had to agree to let Conservative Party employees work for either side in the debate.
A report published yesterday by the Open Europe think- woutank, which examined recent public statements by the Conservative Party’s 330 lawmakers, found 69 would probably back an EU exit, with 203 likely to swing either way. Only 58 seem assured to vote for Britain to remain in the bloc.
The premier suffered a further blow on Thursday when former chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson said he would lead a campaign for Britain to leave, arguing Cameron will not succeed in securing necessary reforms.
Lawson, the most senior Tory to join the For Britain group, said it needed to get its campaign under way. On Monday, the group will take part in a discussion on the conference fringe with Business for New Europe, which is campaigning to remain in the EU.