The release of the Conservative Home poll on the eve of their party conference creates a real headache for David Cameron. Even as it was, the Irish Yes vote on the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon would have put Europe higher up the agenda for the conference that the leadership would have probably preferred. The problem is that in the details of the poll: only 16% suggesting that the treaty of Lisbon should be accepted and nearly three quarters want a complete renegotiation of British membership. Perhaps even more extraordinary, about 40% of Conservative activists actually want to withdraw from the European Union completely.
The scale of Europhobia amongst the Conservatives is pretty dramatic and leaves the young Conservative leader with very little room for manoeuvre. The plain fact is that even with a filibuster by the right-wing President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, all of the members of the EU- including the UK- are likely to have ratified the treaty by the end of 2009. After the astonishingly difficult negotiations over nearly a decade, the reforms of the European Union- however imperfect and partial they may be- will have finally been achieved. No one wants to go through the process again. There is simple exhaustion across the continent about the whole process. Once the institutions have adapted to the changes, the appetite for further upheaval will be nil.
David Cameron knows this. He also knows that if he is elected in early Summer next year, he will have to face a gigantic overhaul of the public sector which, however necessary, is going to be very painful and is going to make him very unpopular. In my view he is more pragmatic about the EU than the poll shows the rest of his party as being. I suspect that his original game plan was to essentially accept Lisbon, negotiate some relatively cosmetic changes and put this to a referendum with a government recommendation that the UK votes "Yes" and therefore stays inside the European Union. It seemed to me to be a neat political solution that would get Cameron off the horns of the dilemma.
What the poll shows, though, is that he could end up be caught between the rabid Europhobia of the majority of his party supporters- including a large number of people who may end up being elected to Parliament- and the unwillingness or inability of the other 26 member states to offer him sufficient changes to the treaty that he will need as sops to his domestic critics. It is a crisis that could define the whole ethos of a future Conservative administration and distract attention from the far more critical problems of public sector reform.
The Irish Yes vote must have been planned for, and the leadership would be quite aware of the visceral nature of Tory feelings concerning the European Union. Nevertheless, even if "forewarned is forearmed" the European issue is one that has the potential to upset the Conservative applecart even more severely than Liberal splits on Ireland in the 19th Century.
The Conservative leadership- even if not, apparently, its membership- knows that committing to withdrawal from the European Union at a time when the British economy is so fragile would have a drastic effect on investment and confidence. Sterling, already weak, could drop dramatically, with severe effects on inflation and British standards of living. International investors, already unhappy at the currency volatility that they have had to endure from their British investments, will demand much a higher risk premium- just at the point where the UK needs to tap the global markets to fund the ballooning deficit. The British AAA rating- already under review with a negative outlook would finally be gone. Cameron knows that the economic effects of even hinting at withdrawal would have political effects that would probably destroy the Conservatives as a government party for years or even decades.
On the other hand he will now have to face his activists. I suspect he will continue his careful pose of "Euro-scepticism" while tacitly implying that he shares the Europhobes hostile view of EU membership. Nevertheless, instead of the triumphant pre-election love-fest that he may have wanted, the Tory conference will now be reported as facing a "European crisis" and all questions will come back to this. Conservative dyspepsia on the EU risks being revealed as full blown irritable bowel syndrome.
The further problem is that Cameron has not yet "sealed the deal". Hostility to Gordon Brown's Labour government is entrenched, but poll after poll makes clear that support for the Conservatives is still very tepid. The wave of enthusiasm that swept Tony Blair into office is not being matched by a similar wave for Cameron's Conservatives. Though I doubt not that the Tory Boys and Twinsets will give their leader a rousing ovation at the end of his speech, there is a growing sense of doubt. The Politics Home poll of marginals shows Labour and especially the Liberal Democrats looking more resilient and also a potentially good result for Plaid the SNP and even a gain or two for the Greens in the next Parliament. The fall of Socialism is increasing political diversity rather than necessarily flowing to the Conservatives. Though the crude numbers are hard to interpret, we should remember that the Conservatives still have a mountain to climb when it comes to achieving a decent working Parliamentary majority. The fear of several key people around Cameron is that the Conservatives may not be able to get much above a single figure majority- a situation where an influx of young Europhobic MPs could be a highly explosive mixture.
The task for David Cameron at Manchester this conference is very delicate. He must try to stick to his game plan, but he knows that the media narrative, together with some of the more excitable Europhobes could end up derailing the whole conference unless he is very careful indeed.
I doubt whether he is looking forward to the conference with much enthusiasm.