WEAK weak, weak.” That was how Tony Blair characterised John Major’s leadership on Europe in January 1997. The pair were sparring over Major’s “wait and see” policy on the euro, which was openly disobeyed by many Tory backbenchers, who adopted the Reverend Ian Paisley’s refrain: “Never, never, never”. But the Labour leader could have been talking about the entire 1992-1997 Major administration, which was marred by almost constant rebellion over Europe.
Still, the biggest single rebellion over Europe, suffered by Major in May 1993, saw just 41 MPs vote against the whip. Cameron’s humiliation, which saw around 80 Tory MPs rebel, was much, much worse. Some parliamentary aides, were effectively forced to resign to join the dissenters. The chief casualty was Adam Holloway, the parliamentary private secretary to David Lidington – the minister, as irony would have it, for Europe.
Cameron loyalists point out that this is just one vote, that the Prime Minister still has an awful long way to go before he is as hamstrung as Major was. That might be so, but in some ways the situation facing the Tory leadership today is even more perilous than the one faced by Major.
For a start, the Eurosceptics feel betrayed. In Cameron and Hague, they were told they had the most sympathetic leadership team since Margaret Thatcher left Number 10. Downing Street is forever telling journalists that Cameron and Steve Hilton, his closest adviser, are furious at how EU rules are hampering Britain’s recovery. Yet the spin is not matched by action; instead, the government preaches fiscal union for the Eurozone.
The Eurosceptics are also emboldened. They were right about the euro and polls show that public opinion is increasingly on their side. The pro-Brussels faction once led by Ken Clarke has all but disappeared. That is why Hague’s speech attacking the rebel motion was delivered in silence yesterday. Most backbenchers who are supporting the government are doing so with a heavy heart, and with an eye on their future career.
Cameron has always said that his preferred modus operandi would be to use any treaty changes to repatriate powers back to the UK. Now it looks as though he might have a chance to make good on that commitment, after Angela Merkel said treaty change was necessary to punish profligate Eurozone governments.
Cameron has to take on Nick Clegg and the Liberals, and repatriate the powers that matter most for economic recovery. If he doesn’t, this rebellion is likely to get even louder.