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article imageUK Conservatives flex their muscles but rifts remain

By Jessica Berthereau (AFP)     Oct 4, 2015 in Politics

Britain's Conservative Party, which holds its annual conference from Sunday, seems stronger than ever after an unexpected electoral triumph but old divisions on Europe are re-surfacing and a battle to succeed David Cameron is looming.

"Conservatives will be in very good spirit," said Duncan O'Leary, research director at Demos, a think-tank.

"They no longer have to compromise with the Liberal Democrats and they are confident that they are in a good position to win the next election".

The congress comes in the wake of victory in a May general election that allowed them to form the first all-Conservative government in nearly 20 years, after five years of coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats.

Reflecting the strength of their position, protests planned against the conference in Manchester in northern England are expected to be large-scale.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is expected to take part in anti-Conservative events in Manchester
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is expected to take part in anti-Conservative events in Manchester
Leon Neal, AFP

The People's Assembly Against Austerity movement is organising a week of demonstrations and events in the city under the slogan "Take Back Manchester" throughout the conference, which wraps up on Wednesday.

The hard-left new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected in a landslide just last month, is also expected to take part in the anti-Conservative events on Monday.

"Labour has elected a leader who Conservatives see as unelectable and therefore in some ways it gives the Conservatives slightly more freedom to fall out with each other without risking a decline in popularity," said Tim Bale, a professor of political science at Queen Mary University in London.

"I think that this freedom might be abused by some people," such as the hardline eurosceptics who are planning to vote against EU membership in a referendum due to be held by 2017, Bale told AFP.

"You can already see the people who are obsessed with this issue beginning to crank up the pressure on David Cameron," he said.

- 'Cracks will emerge' -

Conservative hardline eurosceptics plan to vote against EU membership in a referendum due to be held...
Conservative hardline eurosceptics plan to vote against EU membership in a referendum due to be held by 2017
Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/File

The British prime minister has said he will campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed EU but has been vague about exactly how he plans to renegotiate the terms of membership with EU partners.

Although most Conservative lawmakers are waiting to see the result of the negotiations before they decide which way to vote "cracks will begin to emerge", O'Leary said.

Ahead of the conference, Nigel Lawson, a finance minister under former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, said he would head up a campaign by Conservatives who want to leave the EU.

Ties with the rest of Europe, which divided the Labour Party in the 1960s and 1970s, have now become a key bone of contention for the Conservatives.

Former Conservative prime minister John Major has said the battle with eurosceptics nearly destroyed the Conservatives when he was in power in the 1990s.

The other issue underlying the conference is who will succeed Cameron ahead of the next general election in 2020, after the prime minister said that he would not try for a third mandate.

Former Conservative cabinet minister Nigel Lawson is heading a campaign by Conservatives who want to...
Former Conservative cabinet minister Nigel Lawson is heading a campaign by Conservatives who want to leave the EU
Christopher Furlong, POOL/AFP

"It's obvious that (finance minister) George Osborne is at the moment in pole position... but things can change quite quickly," Bale said.

Observers say that it will be between Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson, even if other names have been put forward like Home Secretary Theresa May and Business Minister Sajid Javid.

"Boris Johnson is more popular with the public but George Osborne is more popular with the Conservative Party membership and it's ultimately the membership who decide who the next leader is," said O'Leary.

While he bides his time, Osborne is unlikely to pass up the opportunity to boast about his pet "Northern Powerhouse" project for economic development in Manchester.

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