A SENIOR eurosceptic Tory has played down the prospect of David Cameron facing a repeat of the internal struggles over Europe that hamstrung John Major in the 1990s.
With only the slimmest of Commons majorities, Mr Cameron faces a tough task keeping backbenchers happy as he seeks a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Brussels to put to an in/out referendum by 2017.
Some have already begun setting out their own priorities and parallels have been drawn with the paralysis inflicted on the Major administration by anti-EU rebels opposed to the Maastricht Treaty after his own surprise re-election to Number 10 with a small numerical advantage in 1992.
But David Davis praised the swiftness with which the re-elected Prime Minister met with the chair of the influential 1922 committee Graham Brady in a bid to smooth relations and said he did not anticipate trouble.
“I don’t think we will repeat the Major days for three reasons,” Mr Davis - who lost out on the Tory leadership to Mr Cameron a decade ago and has been critical of aspects of his regime - told BBC1’s Andrew Marr.
“One: we have done it before and we know what it feels like. Two: people have got the option of talking to him more than before. And three: if they don’t like the outcome they can actually campaign against it in the referendum.
He welcomed the decision to make Mr Brady one of the newly re-elected PM’s first meetings - after a botched attempt to curtail the influence of the ‘22 after the 2010 election set the tone for fraught relations between No10 and backbenchers.
“They must treat him with respect because he’s their bridge,” Mr Davis said.
He suggested that the priority for MPs from the negotiations would be securing an effective opt-out for the UK from measures considered against the national interest, rather than over immigration.
Mr Cameron has championed moves to restrict benefits for new arrivals but faces a struggle to secure from EU partners any significant reforms to freedom of movement rules.
“I would put immigration, very important in the public mind, to one side,” he said. “We haven’t got millions of people here on benefits; we’ve got millions of people here in jobs.”
“Freedom of movement is important but it is not the main one. The main one is that we are able to say in future to the Europeans that ‘this is too far for us’. Not a veto but an opt out.
“There is one already for France - a thing called the Luxembourg Compromise. It’s all about restoring control of our destiny to the House of Commons.”
Asked if he would vote to remain in the EU if that was case, he said: “I think I would. That, for me, is the acid test, it’s not the only one, I grant you, but it’s the central one.”
He praised the “courage” of the Conservative election campaign.
“They maintained a campaign against the run of conventional wisdom so it was a brave campaign and on this occasion courage has paid off,” he said.
Eurosceptic ex-cabinet minister Owen Paterson said Mr Cameron had a “real mandate” to push reform in Brussels.
“We wish the Prime Minister well (on renegotiation). Don’t forget the 27 partners will have seen this, they have seen a very resounding statement by the British people to back the Prime Minister’s programme, he goes there with a real mandate,” he told the Murnaghan show on Sky News.
“We have to give him the time and space to deliver. There is very broad agreement across the Tory party, there is broad agreement with small ‘c’ conservatives who have been completely ignored by the metropolitan media and the pollsters and spoke up.
“They have broad agreement for moving towards an arrangement where we have the benefits of the single market but not the political and judicial arrangements.
“We have to give the Prime Minister, with his massive mandate, the very best shot to deliver.”