Centreground Political Communications

Europe: the old Tory weakness returns

Written by on October 21st, 2011
DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN10 - David Cameron, Le...

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In the months that followed his election victory in 1992, John Major made a series of speeches praising his own economic sagacity and promising that he would have the mettle required to overcome Britain’s lamentable postwar record of inflation and devaluation, writes Adrian McMenamin.

That all ended in ignominy one Wednesday in mid-September that year when the markets decided that a fortune was to be made at the expense of the UK Treasury. But it was what happened next that did far more damage – after all “Black Wednesday” meant lower domestic interest rates and better terms for exporters abroad: it was a blow, and a bad one, but it was survivable.

For what happened next was that Major, rocked by events, began a campaign of appeasement to Tory Eurosceptics. But every concession made him weaker at home and ever more isolated in Europe. It did not take long before the Eurosceptics were running the table and leaving the government looking ragged.

Now, the British people are no great lovers of Europe. They have not experienced defeat and occupation in world war, nor fascist or communist dictatorship. Claims that the European Union has banished these from the continent mean little over here. For the UK, Europe is nothing personal, it is strictly business.

But those who mistake British comedic xenophobia – don’t mention the war – for a willingness to walk out of the country’s key economic relationship are making a fundamental mistake. Europe is like going to the dentist – it has to be endured.

So when Major’s government spent its time fighting itself about Europe it looked hugely out of touch to most voters. Worse than that, it looked weird: it was as though a strange cult of conspiracy theorists and obsessives had infested the highest levels of the British state.

It now seems David Cameron is about to stumble down the same blind ally. The difference this time is that he also appears to be a sleeper member of the cult, so his attempts to beat back the sceptic attack start from a disadvantage.

Next week parliament will vote on a Tory backbench motion that Britain should have a referendum on withdrawal from the European Union. Having kept Labour bottled up for 18 long and dismal months, its opponents have launched their crazed assault on the great lands to the East, and like Napoleon before them, it can only end in their total defeat. It is not a question of if, but of when. It may not even be in this Parliament, but it will happen.

Already Cameron’s response to the motion has been confused. He got his business managers to bring the debate forward by two days so he could speak against it, and instructed the whips to make it a “three liner” meaning no Tory MP, and certainly no member of the government, would even be permitted to abstain.

But at the same time he attempted to stitch up a side deal with the sceptics, essentially promising them he would remove European social protection from British law. Then he backed off that, blaming the Liberal Democrats.

It could hardly be worse for him: he has revealed that his European agenda is centred on a lurch to the right (how he thinks his ‘woman problem’ will be solved by removing employment protection from mothers is beyond me), he has rattled the sceptics’ cage and then he confessed to his original sin – of not winning an election – admitting he can do nothing because he is dependent on his coalition partners.

What happens on Monday now is pretty much irrelevant. The blue touch paper has been lit.

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