"I’m very lucky in my constituency," Nicholas Soames says. "I have very grown up sensible members who don’t agree with me, but we never have a quarrel. I absolutely respect their views. A lot of them wish I was more eurosceptic but I’m not. My job is to be an MP. It’s not just about Europe."
With European elections next week, and with the UK Independence Party (Ukip) leading in the polls, if there ever was a time for a europhile Tory MP to bang on about Europe, this is it. In an interview with The Huffington Post, the 66-year-old grandson of Winston Churchill says being anti-European Union has become the new "litmus test" for local Conservative associations when choosing parliamentary candidates. And he isn't a fan of it.
The veteran Conservative MP for Mid-Sussex compares the current situation to the debate around capital punishment within the party when he first sought election in the late 1970s. The parliamentary party, he warns, is increasingly being packed with deeply eurosceptic MPs.
"In those days the litmus test on the right of the Tory party was hanging. If you weren’t pro-hanging you wouldn’t get selected. Well now the litmus test is Europe. If you are not very eurosceptic and prepared to go along with the more strongly held, but I think eccentric views, of some of these Conservative associations, you won’t get selected," he says. "That’s a great pity and I think a lot of it is knee-jerk stuff."
Soames, who describes himself as a "staunch pro-European", says the problem of grassroots euroscepticism been growing for a long time. "I think Conservative associations are of a certain generation, who regard it, like the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph, as an article of faith," he says.
"I think this is wrong. When you are choosing an MP you need to choose the person who is pretty much likely to be the best representative for your area. They are not just electing them to be a poodle of the association."
Speaking to the HuffPost UK in his Westminster office, as party leaders criss-cross the country on the campaign trail, the Tory grandee tells Nigel Farage not to be such a "shrinking fucking violet" when faced with growing criticism. Soames also warns pro-Europe Tories that they need to be better at making the case for Britain's membership of the union, given the promised in/out referendum in 2017. He names Andrew Lansley and Andrew Mitchell as two ideal picks for Britain's next EU commissioner.
Soames says he is sure Ukip will "do very well" in the May 22 elections. Senior Tory and Labour figures have dismissed the importance of the result. Police minister Damian Green has said voters use the poll as a "free kick" against mainstream and shadow Commons leader Angela Eagle said it would be wrong to "extrapolate hugely" from the result.
But Soames warns his colleagues in all parties not to ignore the result. "I think, traditionally, we make a lot about this thing about how these elections don’t matter. Well I think they do matter and I think people are being pretty flippant if they think it doesn’t matter," he says.
But he adds that Farage is a "one trick pony" whose "bubble has probably burst" already. "He is an extraordinary interesting performer. He is an extraordinarily vigorous campaigner. But when people stop and think, 'do we really want this man to form a government or be part of shaping one', I think people who are of good will and good common sense will think twice," he says.
For his part, Farage is hoping a first place finish in the European elections will be a springboard to success at the 2015 general election. But Soames is less convinced. Asked where Farage will be in five years time, he mulls the question, rolling a grape in his fingers, before replying: "I have no idea where he will be, in the pub probably."
Adding of the Ukip leader's freewheeling approach to politics: "I don’t think these are issues that can be dealt with just swilling a pint of beer and having a fag, both of which are very agreeable things by the way, but not necessarily when done in conjunction with formulating policy."
NIGEL, DON'T BE SUCH A SHRINKING F**KING VIOLET
Soames is less than impressed with the "bad reputation" and work ethic of sitting Ukip MEPs. "They don’t turn up at important votes when British interests are at stake. I think they have got a pretty rotten record," he says.
Being lazy isn't the worst accusation Ukip has had to defend itself against though. It has come under intense pressure in recent weeks over its anti-immigration rhetoric and campaign billboards. Soames says Ukip's first posters were "really appalling" but that it's a matter for them. "I don’t think people like them [the posters] very much," he adds.
"I don’t think that their political advertising is particularly tasteful but that’s not my worry. I don’t think they have added greatly to the understanding about the big issues."
It is clear Soames also thinks Farage, who has been staging events across the country on the campaign trail, is in danger of buying into his own hype. "They have done very well. I suspect Mr Farage will be riding along on sea of being told how marvellous he is and where he goes people tell him how wonderful he is. He mistakes talking to a hall of 500 people for the nation."
Ukip has bristled at accusations that it is racist and tried to attack the allegation head on. Soames has little sympathy for Farage's newfound thin skin. "In politics there is no point being a shrinking fucking violet is there?," he exclaims, deploying his trademark colourful language. "People do say harsh things about you."
Born in 1948, Eton educated Soames served in the Army before being elected MP for the West Sussex seat of Crawley in 1983. He switched to the neighbouring safe Tory seat of Mid Sussex at the Labour landslide in 1997. Having been a defence minister under John Major and shadow defence secretary under Michael Howard, he now sits on the backbenches.
He most recently hit the headlines with some harsh words of his own. He was reported to have publicly rebuked fellow Tory Adam Afriyie for being a "chateau bottled nuclear powered ****". Afriyie had been attempting to force Cameron to hold his promised referendum immediately, rather than after the next election. He did not like the smell of disloyalty.
The Conservative grandee wants his fellow backbenchers to be more loyal to their party leader, the prime minister. He praises Cameron for taking on the "tremendously difficult task" of trying to win back powers from Brussels. "He is going about it in a perfectly serious way".
But he warns it is no good to just "shout as if you are howling at the moon" from the sidelines. "You have to get the agreement of 28 states. There are many other people in Europe who want the same as we do, but we have to build alliances and coalitions".
For all Soames' pro-EU words, he is keen to dispel the idea he is an uncritical europhile. "What the Labour government did [by] just opening the gates [to Eastern European migrants] was absolutely mad and terribly foolish and irresponsible," he says.
But while he agrees with Farage that the UK needs "a tough immigration policy" it also has to be a "serious" one. The implication, of course, being that Ukip is far from serious. Farage's party, he says, "mistakes being frank for being absurd".
Soames has to admit, however, that eurosceptics, both in Ukip and within the Conservative Party, have been dominating the debate and that "the Farage tune is a good one".
"I think the pro-Europeans, myself included, have to accept the blame," he says. "The fact is, after the vote to take Britain into Europe all the pro-Europeans sat back and said 'well we have done that', and we never continued to make the case."
"There are many more pro—Europeans than you would think," he says of the Conservative Party. "The eurosceptics, many of whom are my friends and are highly intelligent people with strong views, they are entirely respectable in every way, I just don’t agree with them. They are singing the best song at the moment."
Soames has been one of the leading advocates for the Tories to be more proactive in making the pro-EU case. And while he is hardly a Lib Dem, he says he respected Nick Clegg for taking the fight to Ukip. "I applaud his guts in doing it I think he is right to make the case," he says. But he is damning about the deputy prime minister's "appalling" TV debates with Farage. "I think he did alright the first time, the second time he got monstered."
THE WHOLE OF EUROPE LAY SMASHED TO PIECES, NEVER AGAIN
The former Tory defence minister lays the blame for much of the current antipathy in the country towards Brussels at the feet of successive governments who fuelled euroscepticism by championing their every small victory over the EU bureaucracy. "I don’t think any government since the mid-1970s has provided any form of significant leadership to the country. I don’t blame people. I blame the governments who have been too wet to do it," he says.
Winning concessions, Soames insists, is "not the be all and end all" of the UK's relationship with the EU. "I think when people in government and others look at the overall picture, even the staunchest eurosceptics, by and large, come round to understanding we have to do this. We can’t just walk away from it," he says.
He adds with a grin: "But that’s not everyone. One or two of my colleagues would gladly walk away tomorrow morning. I respect that view. It’s strongly held and it’s sincerely held. They fact they are wrong is another question."
This summer, in the wake of the European elections, Cameron has another decision to make. He must appoint Britain's new European commissioner. The Tory right will be lobbying hard for a strong eurosceptic to fill Baroness Ashton's shoes. Soames agrees that this is a "very important choice" for the prime minister and the country but refuses to be drawn on a favourite. "I think all the candidates that I have seen would do the job very well."
In any Westminster discussion about Britain's next commissioner, two senior figures feature prominently. And Soames drops their names without prompting. "I have a preference for getting the right man," he says. "I don’t know who that would be. But all of the ones I know whose names are in the frame; Andrew Lansley, Andrew Mitchell, for example, are absolutely excellent. Very clever, very well informed, sensible experienced people."
The two men, one current and one former cabinet minister, may not necessarily view the endorsement of a staunch pro-European as helpful, given the current eurosceptic mood of the parliamentary party.
For Soames, Europe runs in his family and in his bones. Almost every article about him - including this one - inevitably begins with a mention of his famous grandfather. But Soames is proud of his heritage, not shy. Aside from having a wartime prime minister for a grandparent, his father served as UK ambassador to France and as a European commissioner. "I grew up in the EU," he explains. "I speak French. I served in Germany in the Army. I feel myself to be very much at home in Europe. I feel the idea that Britain should be away from that is absolutely mad."
"I think the idea Britain could stand apart form it is frankly nonsense. We live in a very dangerous very difficult world. A multi-connected, hyper-connected world where what happens elsewhere is a concern to all of us.
"This is work in progress. In 1945, which is not very long ago, the whole of Europe lay smashed to pieces except for this country. The EU has ensured we will never ever go to war again with a friendly European power. People think that is just a given. And of course the further we go the more remote seems the past. But people forget our grandparents had to go to war twice in 25 years to secure the future of Europe.
"Time," Soames says slowly, as he reflects on the rise in anti-European sentiment since the end of the war, "makes people complacent".