The Conservatives, Britain and Europe: The Remake

The Conservative Party’s bickering about the ‘best’ vision for Britain’s relationship with Europe continues.

Even though ‘Europe’ carries little electoral significance, the issue has a disproportionate relevance to Conservatives and is one that seems incapable of resolving itself. It all rather resembles the joke about an expat returning to Britain only to find the continuation of the DFS sofa sale.

This renewed debate arises because of David Cameron’s electorally expedient pledge in 2013 to hold a European referendum. His challenge now is that having secured a parliamentary majority against expectations, he must enact this pledge, renegotiate with his European partners, and then ‘sell’ that revised relationship to the British public.

The success of the renegotiation is by no means certain. The Scottish independence referendum has left British politics in turmoil, suggesting that nothing can be taken for granted regarding the outcome of any European vote. The easy part, or so it should have been, was enacting the pledge to hold a referendum. But the small Conservative majority has handed backbench Eurosceptics an opportunity to cause maximum political inconvenience and leverage concessions from the government over the timing and campaigning framework of the referendum.

Matters have not been helped by the Prime Minster’s publicity machine misfiring. Illustrative was his insistence that any minister not accepting his renegotiated terms and campaigning alongside him should resign – a demand hastily rescinded owing to ‘misunderstandings’.

Should Cameron really be concerned? There is certainly reason for anxiety.

History shows us that the Conservative parliamentary rebellion over the Maastricht treaty in 1992–93 spilled over into legislative matters beyond the remit of Europe. Revolts over the privatisation of the Post Office and coal mine closures, for example, showed the willingness of the Eurosceptics to cause maximum disruption for the Major government’s legislative timetable. A number of those keys figures, such as Bill Cash, remain at Westminster, and the lessons they learnt of marshalling their supporters and covertly liaising with the opposition will not have been lost.

History also tells us that Mr Cameron needs to be wary of the new intake of 74 Conservative MPs – their ‘fresher’ status is not an automatic guarantee of loyalty. The 1992 general election intake of Conservative MPs, which included Iain Duncan Smith, saw 20 sign the June ‘Fresh Start’ early day motion that ignited the Maastricht debate. It showed John Major that this intake was not willing to be corralled by threats from the whip’s office. Will Cameron’s untried and untested chief whip, Mark Harper, measure up to the challenge?

In 1992, John Major’s electoral victory, against polling predictions, was hailed a triumph. His electoral honeymoon lasted months rather than weeks: Labour leadership was in turmoil and distracted by contests. Yet Major was written off by commentators and a Eurosceptic press. Still, his government saw through the ratification of Maastricht and served a full term despite the smallness of its majority; perhaps Cameron does have some hope.

However, 1997 brought Conservative electoral annihilation, excluding them from office until 2011. Many Conservatives wondered whether it would have been better if Major had lost in 1992. Will Cameron ultimately have similar regrets about 2015?

Professor Nicholas Crowson
Professor of Contemporary British History,
University of Birmingham