“Europe, Thatcher worship and rows over gay rights issues. The Tories are partying like it’s 1993”, tweeted author and strange selection to fight Eastleigh for Labour in the 2013 by election, John O’Farrell. And as summer 2013 approached it did indeed seem like we were trapped in some terrible time warp where a Tory PM was besieged by “swivel eyed loons” at every turn, bent on dragging him down some pointless alleyway as he attempted to formulate a credible response to an ailing economy. John Major begged the “bastards” in his Cabinet, “not to tie my hands over Europe”. As a member of the Major inner circle Cameron must be contemplating setting up a new Tory media outlet and calling it “Deja Vu Magazine”.
The Labour Party looked on in smug mode, just waiting for the Tories to yet again destroy themselves over Europe, and to add to the fun Cameron had to rely completely and utterly on opposition party votes to get the Marriage Equality Bill through the Commons. 137 Tory MP’s including two Cabinet Ministers deliberately attempted to wreck Cameron’s personal project to detoxify the Tory brand. A vote against the Marriage Bill was a deliberate and calculated rejection of the prime minister’s authority. The idea of such a revolt under Thatcher is unthinkable. Love her or loath her, Maggie had the one gift that Cameron would give his eye teeth for; the ability (until 1989) to take the political temperature of the Tory Party and the country as a whole, and make the right policy call for her aims and objectives.
Europe just will not go away for the Tories. Ted Heath’s decision to take us into the Common Market was just the beginning. Thatcher managed to steer clear of the European rocks by waving her hand bag about and boring the French and West Germans into submission at all night meetings where she simply harangued her fellow leaders until all they could say was, “No mas!” and head for their beds.
But by 1990 the cracks in the Tory Party could not be papered over. Europe was on the move towards greater economic and political union. Senior Ministers such as rookie Foreign Secretary John Major, Ken Clarke, Geoffrey Howe, Douglas Hurd and Chris Patten reasoned that if the UK continued to be a wrecking ball in negotiations then we would be left totally behind as the rest of the Continent forged ahead to form the biggest single market in the World. Thatcher was having non of it. “No, no, no” became her mantra. But the writing was on the wall, and the “No, no, no” mantra was now uttered by a succession of Ministers when she invited them to back her against the assassin Michael Heseltine in the fateful autumn of 1990 when he challenged Margaret Thatcher, winner of three general elections and the longest serving PM since Lord Liverpool for the leadership of the Tory Party.
Of course Europe was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The popular uprising all over the UK against the Poll Tax made her position untenable as Tory MP’s looked at the opinion polls and saw themselves with a date at the unemployment office (well, more likely the Boardroom of a Bank or PLC) if they didn’t ditch their leader.
The Tories are amazingly accident prone when it comes to Europe. John Major grasped the wheel and steered the party to the biggest election vote in history when, in 1992 14 million votes put him back in Number Ten. They had swerved a recession, mass unemployment, soaring crime rates, crumbling schools and an NHS in intensive care and still come out the other side.
Because Major had repealed the Poll Tax and promised a tough but reasonable approach to the up coming Euro negotiations which resulted in the Maastrict Treaty the Party came together and comprehensively walloped Labour in the 1992 election. Happy days.
But even as the economy improved after the currency crisis of September 1992, the Tories couldn’t help themselves. Major pulled off a minor miracle at Maastrict by somehow convincing the others that they could forge ahead with a single currency, unified employment rights and other more unitary policies whilst the UK stayed in the single market but waived other responsibilities.
The Treaty saw Major lauded as skilled and subtle negotiator, a diplomat who could protect UK interests without the rancour and ill feeling that Thatcher had engendered. Yet that wasn’t enough. Iain Duncan Smith rose to national prominence by defying his leader, and joined six other Tories by being suspended from the whip for voting against the Treaty.
An uneasy truce was negotiated with the rebels, but by 1995 Major felt so under fire from his right wing Euro sceptic flank, that he called a press conference in the Rose Garden of Number Ten in July of that sweltering summer. The heat was on in more ways than one. In shirt sleeves and looking surprisingly relaxed, Major delivered the biggest shock of his time in Office by resigning as Party Leader and challenging his opponents in the Tory Party to, “put up, or shut up”.
The Euro sceptics were totally caught off guard. What to do now? The obvious candidate was Thatcher protégée Michael Portillo. But having taken soundings the Defence Secretary decided to wait and see if a stalking horse candidate could do Major enough damage for him to enter on the second ballot. Portillo even set up a campaign HQ whilst at the same time as promising the PM cabinet loyalty.
“I did not want to oppose [Major], but neither did I want to close the possibility of entering a second ballot if it came to that.” But his indecssivness cost Portillo the crown and tainted his career from then on. “Ambiguity is not an attractive trait”, he later admitted.
But the best the right could come up with as a candidate was Wales Secretary John Redwood who had the image of Mr. Spock and made John Major look like Bill Clinton in the charisma stakes. But Redwood polled 89 votes which was the worst possible outcome for the Tories as it left Major severley damaged but with no credible alternative. So the seeds for the 1997 meltdown were sown for the Tories.
In opposition the Tories became more and more Euro sceptic. Despite New Labour effectively ruling out joining the single currency (much to Blair’s chagrin) William Hague persisted with a campaign based on saving the pound. He paid the price for having no other policies by being hammered and resigned the day after the 2001 election only for the Party to elected arch right wing anti European MP Iain Duncan Smith. Despite defeating IDS and Portillo in the Parliamentary Party elections Ken Clarke was roundly defeated by Duncan Smith in the popular vote of Tory members.
It was not until 2005 that the Tory Party finally woke up to the fact that their paranoia over Europe was not what the UK public wanted to hear. David Davis, given the nomenclature “Monsieur Non” by his European counterparts when he served as Major’s Europe Minister was the red hot favourite to succeed Michael Howard following the 2005 general election defeat. Yet seemingly from nowhere David Cameron, who had only entered Parliament in 2001 appeared and defeated Davis to become Tory leader.
Cameron’s aim was to ape Tony Blair by bringing the Tory Party back to the middle ground, and part of this was to appear less prickly and antagonistic over the Europe issue. But once in power, and with the 2010 Tory intake veering to the right Cameron was forced to placate the anti European lobby, and try to head off the rise of UKIP. As we have seen his flouncing out of the European Summit in December 2011 sent mixed messages and strained the Coalition. Then, in January 2013, under severe electoral pressure from Nigel Farage’s “alliance of bigots and closet racists” Cameron announced that if elected with a majority he would re negotiate our relationship with Europe seek endorsement for it with an in/out referendum.
The referendum gambit failed spectacularly as UKIP drove home their electoral advantage by pushing the Tories into third place in the Eastleigh and South Shields by elections and polling 26% of the popular vote in the Council elections. Panicked by the prospect of being challenged in their Commons Seats by UKIP, Tory MP’s flocked to the anti Euro banner and delivered Cameron a kicking by rebuking themselves as a Party for not including the in/out referendum in the Queens Speech. In May 2013 Education Secretary Michael Gove joined Tory grandees David Davis and Michael Portillo by publicly declaring he would vote to get out of Europe if referendum were held now.
A by product of this UKIP inspired lurch rightwards saw the Marriage Equality Bill only pass through the Commons with Opposition support.
Once again Europe was rending the Tory Party asunder.
What of Labour?
Read this next instalment here.