Andrew Whitaker: Cameron could be isolated over Europe

John Major defeated Labour unexpectedly in 1992 leaving him more vulnerable to ambush by his rightwing over Europe. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
John Major defeated Labour unexpectedly in 1992 leaving him more vulnerable to ambush by his rightwing over Europe. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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THE troubles faced by John Major in the 1990s may also soon haunt David Cameron, writes Andrew Whitaker

The aftermath of the 7 May general election feels strikingly like that of the weeks after the 1992 vote, with a Labour Party reeling after an unexpected defeat and a wave of triumphalism from a Tory party basking in a shock, decisive victory. For Labour supporters up and down the country, there’s a raw Groundhog Day feeling. It’s a living nightmare and a situation many thought they would never have to live through again.

David Cameron meanwhile strides the European stage like a rock star on a sell-out tour, with whistle-stop visits to other European nations, and meets and greets leaders he hopes will make key concessions to him in his flagship attempt to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s European Union membership.

However, it was not long after John Major’s unexpected triumph over Labour in 1992, the last time the Tories won outright before Mr Cameron’s win on 7 May, that rumblings of discontent began within the Tory party over Europe.

In the summer of 1992, rebellious Tory backbenchers were already voicing discontent with their leadership’s backing for the Maastricht Treaty on closer European integration – something that would go on to be a huge thorn in the side of Mr Major’s government and which came close to bringing it to a premature end.

Mr Cameron, as someone who served as a special adviser to Mr Major’s government, will be all too well aware of his party’s capacity to self-destruct over Europe and will be confident he can learn the lessons of history.

So there may well be all sorts of attempts by Mr Cameron to keep his party’s Eurosceptic wing on side, with hard-line rhetoric on curbing immigration, restricting the welfare rights of EU citizens from other member states living in the UK and attempts to water down employment protection handed to workers from Brussels.

Mr Major made similar attempts when his Tory government refused to accept Europe’s Social Chapter, setting out minimal employment rights on areas such as health and safety, in the early 1990s as a sop to his party’s rightwing.

But however much Mr Cameron attempts to learn the lessons of history for the Conservatives, there is a large contingent in the Tory party for whom all reason goes out of their minds when they hear the word “Europe”.

Mr Cameron faced his party’s largest post-war rebellion on Europe in the last parliament in 2011 when 81 Tory MPs supported a call for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in defiance of the Prime Minister.

True, Mr Cameron has for now satisfied such a demand with his party’s manifesto pledge on an EU referendum, which will be held before the end of 2017.

However, senior Tory backbencher and arch-Eurosceptic John Redwood has indicated he would be prepared to vote for and campaign for EU withdrawal if Mr Cameron fails to secure key concessions from other member states on loosening Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe.

Mr Redwood is a veteran of the party’s EU troubles of the early and mid-1990s and represents a clear strand of opinion in the party, in contrast to the enthusiastically pro-EU wing personified by Kenneth Clarke.

Figures such as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Justice Secretary Michael Gove have already dropped hints about backing EU withdrawal unless major changes are agreed to Britain’s terms of membership.

Mr Cameron’s employment minister, Priti Patel, a former employee of the anti-EU Referendum Party, is also likely to be sympathetic to such an approach.

Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is as central an issue to some Tory politicians as independence is to the SNP and if that means causing problems for Mr Cameron’s premiership, then so be it.

A failure to secure any meaningful concessions from the EU, or enough of a deal to satisfy the Tory Right, could see members of Mr Cameron’s Cabinet on opposite sides of the EU referendum campaign divide.

Such a scenario played out during the referendum in 1975 on Britain’s membership of the Common Market – the forerunner of the EU – when then Labour PM Harold Wilson announced that the government had decided to recommend a vote to remain in, although it emerged that the Cabinet had split, with seven of its 23 members seeking withdrawal.

Having Mr Gove, Mr Hammond, Ms Patel and potentially others egged on by Eurosceptic veterans such as Norman Tebbit on the opposite side of the referendum to Mr Cameron would not exactly make for a united Tory party at Westminster.

To go back to 1993, for example, Mr Major was only able to get his way over Europe with rebellious backbenchers on one occasion by effectively threatening a general election in a vote of no confidence after losing a Commons vote the day before.

It’s not impossible Mr Cameron will face similar crises somewhere down the line, but a critical issue is how well Labour will be prepared to capitalise on it in the way that the party so effectively did under the leaderships of John Smith and then Tony Blair.

Unsurprisingly, Labour is in disarray after its first outright general election defeat in 23 years, but whether it’s Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper or Mary Creagh who is elected as its leader in September, getting the party in a position to exploit potential Tory divisions over the EU should not be beyond them. Critically, Labour needs to be aware Mr Cameron may well attempt to wrong-foot it over the EU, by seeking to secure some concession from the EU to erode employment rights on a similar basis to Mr Major’s opt-out on the Social Chapter and then place that as the take-it-or-leave-it deal before the UK electorate.

Such a move would place Labour, which has stated its backing for a vote to remain in the EU, in a very tricky political spot and the party should begin thinking now about how it will handle such a situation.