For most of the past fifteen years, pro-European Conservatives have been on the endangered species list in British politics. In 2008 only three Conservative MPs out of a caucus of nearly 200 voted in favour of the Lisbon treaty. Thatcher government was dominated by europhile big-beasts – Douglas Hurd, Leon Brittan, Ken Clarke, Chris Patten and Thatcher’s nemesis, Michael Heseltine, just to name a few. Of these, only Clarke remains in David Cameron’s government, like the last europhile dinosaur waiting to be made extinct.
The decisive movement was the passing of the Maastricht treaty in 1993, which cost Prime Minister John Major his majority in Parliament, and caused a decisive split in the party which took a decade to heal. To the eurosceptic rebels, this was the moment that the EU ceased to be about trade and became a political union hell bent on destroying the nation state. To the rest of the country, it is symbolic of a time when the Conservative party decided to make itself unelectable.
Even now, the degree of anti-EU vitriol in the Conservative party has to be seen and heard to be believed, and one of the best places is the Conservative Home site. Last week Robert Buckland, elected as a Tory MP in 2010, penned a thoughtful and fairly innocuous article to the effect that Britain is starting to assert itself in the EU and that this was a good thing. Fairly uncontroversial stuff, and quite hard to disagree with considering that it is only a fortnight ago that David Cameron teamed up with Angela Merkel to win a 3 per cent cut to the EU budget.
In fact, the comments on Buckland’s article by fellow Conservatives illustrates why the party’s moderate wing has tended to keep quiet and why Tory europhilia was – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – like a love that dared not speak its name. Anybody who doesn’t think the Brits should close up the Channel Tunnel and thumb their nose at the continent is in the pay of ‘Brussels’ and/or a “quisling”. Quite how supposedly intelligent people equate support for British EU membership with Nazi collaboration is beyond me.
But, dare I say it, the green shoots of a more moderate eurorealism in the Tory party are starting to show. Several weeks ago, Buckland was one of a group of backbench MPs that launched the European Mainstream group within the Conservative parliamentary party. European Mainstream becomes the second pro-European campaign group to be set up in 2013, following the equally clunky-named cross-party Campaign for British Influence through Europe.
Since then, the EU has announced plans to negotiate a series of bilateral trade deals with G20 countries, with the jewel in the crown being a trade deal with the US – more manna from heaven for free marketeers you might think.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Tory party has not suddenly morphed into a hotbed of federalists. For the time being, there are only 12 MPs declared as members – with the Financial Times reporting that there are another 10-15 who are still too nervous to declare themselves public.
Neither is the party’s eurosceptic rhetoric likely to be toned down. The Tories are scared that losing votes to UKIP could cost them a parliamentary majority in 2015 and lead to a humiliating defeat in next year’s European elections. Taking a hard line on eastern European migration and complaining about the iniquity of ‘regulations from Brussels’ will remain the party’s default setting.
But it is significant enough that they feel brave enough to put their heads above the parapet, and are seemingly prepared to face down critics from their local constituency party. This may turn out to be part of the slow drift of MPs taking sides in advance of an ‘in/out’ referendum. But it just might be a sign that the Conservative party’s silent majority is finally ready to challenge the eurosceptics.