Pro-European Conservatives have launched an attempt to turn back the Eurosceptic tide within the party that they fear is sweeping Britain towards the EU exit door.
Tory MPs who describe themselves as "Euro realists" claim the "silent majority" of the public do not want the UK to quit the EU. But they believe that a reluctant David Cameron is being pushed in that direction by Eurosceptic Tories.
The Prime Minister insists he wants the UK to stay in a reformed EU, but in a much-promised speech later this month will pledge a referendum after the 2015 election on the terms of membership. That has raised fears of British withdrawal if voters reject the "new settlement" that Mr Cameron wins.
One senior Tory MP said yesterday: "He is trying to get the hardline Tory Eurosceptics and the UK Independence Party off his back but he is quietly urging others to make the positive case. He thinks his speech will close down the debate until after 2015 but it will open up a Pandora's box."
A new cross-party think tank, the Centre for British Influence Through Europe, will be launched on 30 January and one of its backers, the former Labour minister Lord Mandelson, told i yesterday: "Quite a number of Tory MPs are fed up with the hardliners grabbing all the limelight. David Cameron needs the other side of the argument - those with a pragmatic, balanced view of Europe - to get organised and speak up."