Hague ducks Lisbon question

By Alex Stevenson

William Hague failed to address dividing lines within the Conservative party on the Lisbon treaty in his speech to the party conference.

He maintained his party’s opposition to the Lisbon treaty but did not specify whether a Tory government would hold a retrospective referendum on the treaty after it is ratified.

The issue has thrown the Tory party into crisis over recent days. Eurosceptics and right-wingers had called on David Cameron to promise a referendum on the treaty regardless of whether it had been set in stone by the time he became PM.

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But with just the Polish and Czech consent remaining, and Czech prime minister Jan Fischer telling European leaders he expects the country to ratify by the end of the year, it appears the treaty will be in force by the time of the next general election in the UK.

“Let us be clear on the reasons for our opposition to the Lisbon Treaty and our call for a referendum,” Mr Hague said in his speech.

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“The ever greater centralisation of power beyond the democratic control of the people is not in keeping with the needs of the twenty-first century; it is against the spirit of our age; it diminishes our ability to pursue our own global relationships, and in its lack of accountability and legitimacy it goes against our fundamental belief that people should only be led and governed with their consent.”

Much of Mr Hague’s speech focused on the consequences of Gordon Brown’s “catastrophic stewardship” of the economy, which he claimed had led to Britain’s diminished standing in the international community.

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He contrasted the “nation diminished” by Labour with the prosperous Britain inherited by Tony Blair in 1997. His own inheritance would be of “British retreat in foreign affairs” at a time when power in the word was “shifting rapidly to the east”, he claimed.

In a clear indication of his own approach to Britain’s traditional balancing act between Europe and the US, Mr Hague sought to move beyond reliance on either.

He added the Tories would offer a “distinctive British foreign policy” which would be “geared to the promotion of the British national interest”.

This would balance the European Union with the US, adding “new friendships and alliances beyond North America and Europe”.

“We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest, for the British national interest is no narrow agenda,” Mr Hague said, saying it could be used to promote free trade and sound development, push for Middle East peace, prevent conflict in Africa and help ensure international law is upheld.

In an echo of the ‘ethical foreign policy’ of New Labour’s first foreign secretary, Robin Cook, he added: “It is not in our character to have a foreign policy without a conscience: to be idle or uninterested while others starve or murder each other in their millions is not for us.”