Many Conservatives went along to the Bruges Group fringe meeting in Birmingham on Sept 29th expecting to hear from a panel including three MEPs — Nigel Farage of UKIP, Dan Hannan and myself. They were taken aback to see two empty chairs, because Dan and I weren’t there.
They may have had the impression that we had simply failed to turn up, or had cancelled at the last moment, but this was by no means the case. I had written to Robert Oulds of The Bruges Group on September 9th, nearly three weeks before the event, to tell him that Dan and I would not be able to attend, and I was rather sorry that no attempt seems to have been made to reflect that in pre-publicity for the meeting.
Not surprisingly, Farage’s proposition was “Conservatives running scared of a UKIP debate”, and “Tory high command gags MEPs”. Neither of these points is true, so let’s look at what actually happened.
I am prepared to debate against UKIP any place, any time. However, a number of colleagues (in Brussels, not in CCHQ or Westminster) felt that by sharing a platform with the leader of a fringe party at our own Party Conference, we gave UKIP unnecessary airtime and credibility. I think they were wrong. It was the Bruges Group that gave Farage a platform at the Conference, and our choice was either to give him a free run to make his pitch (“Just lend us your vote in the 2009 euro-elections, to send a message to the Tory Party”) without any Conservative there to set out the Party’s position or to give him a run for his money — or to take him on head on, which is what I would have done.
However the fact is that if you are a member of a party, you have to work with colleagues, and sometimes you have to make compromises with them — even when they’re wrong.
So some apologies are in order. To all those Conservatives who attended the meeting and felt we had let them down, and that their case, and the Party’s case, went by default, and that Farage had been offered an open goal. To Jim McConologue and the European Journal, which carried a prominent back-page ad for the event after Dan and I had cancelled. To Robert Oulds and the Bruges Group, for withdrawing at three weeks notice. And indeed to the other panellists, Nigel Farage and Simon Heffer, for failing to deliver the robust debate which I am sure they had been expecting.
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