Britain& Europe (7): the Conservative Cabinet Ministers Who Had No Known Fathers and All That


Despite current appearances so definitely to the contrary, it is not Europe that has ripped the Conservative party apart again and again over the past 25 years. Okay, that is clearly an overstatement. It is Europe that did so, and seems to be in danger of so doing again now. As a regular follower of political social media, I have grown used to the bitter invective of say, the left against the Labour centre (well, very familiar). However, the bitterness simmering below the surface (and often not far below it, or just as often not below it all) of the Brexiteers’ invective against the Conservative leadership has been a sight to behold.


There are a number of plausible origins of that bitterness and fury, and one is clearly the fact that Europe arouses deep passions. But why, in the Conservative party, such deep passions and such bitter hatreds? And why not until the 1990s?

My conjecture is straightforward. The Conservatives were torn asunder in the 1990s by one single traumatic event, arguably the single most traumatising event in the history of modern Conservatism since (or perhaps even surpassing) the Peelite split of the 1840s; to wit, the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. And, of course, Europe was the subject and occasion of that treason, and it was a Europhile party establishment that did the deed.

By the time of her Bruges speech, Mrs Thatcher’s antipathy to the European project so beloved in Paris and Bonn had become characteristically splenetic (and Thatcher was never more magnificently splenetic than in her last couple of years in office). Her cabinet were, however, overwhelmingly and strongly pro-European, especially at the top. To make matters worse, some of her strongest allies in the economic battles in her earlier years were also the most strongly European. Even Nigel Lawson was not yet the Europhobe he has become. Most importantly of all, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the chancellor who had done so much to implement Thatcherite economics in her first government, was very strongly pro-European.

It is also true that some of the things that had restrained Mrs Thatcher in her earlier years no longer had the effect. In most areas of policy, the cabinet of her third government was now, in most senses, hers. Furthermore, all the major battles she had fought, she had won. Galtieri, Scargill, Livingstone and Marxism were all vanquished: her instincts had, it seemed, been proved emphatically right. And then, those who might restrain her most effectively were either gone, like Willie Whitelaw, or marginalised, like Howe. Thatcher was now surer of herself, and the rightness of her instincts, than ever. She also believed there was much to do, and she looked for new sacred cows to bring down.

For Thatcher, reform and especially radical reform required momentum. It is in that search for momentum that the misjudgements that brought her down might be thought to have their origins, whether it be the Poll Tax or in her increasing tendency to surround herself with those of a similarly zealous hue. For a politician who saw the world in terms of them and us above all, supporters questioning one or other nostrum or policy came to been increasingly as one of them. It was in that atmosphere that the inner circle grew much more radical and strident. It was in that context that we might begin to see increasingly violent antipathy to Brussels and the new enemy without, Jacques Delors: the road to Bruges was paved thus.

It was not as if Mrs Thatcher was unused to taking on her cabinet and winning. And winning in three senses: getting her policies implemented, being proved right about them and, crucially, winning general elections. That record also, perhaps, clouded her judgement in her third term. Her first election victory might have owed as much to a divided, tired and frankly washed up Callaghan government. Her second might be explained by the Falklands effect, the coming of the SPD and Michael Foot’s unelectable Labour opposition. In contrast to the ramshackle farce of 1983, in 1987 Labour fought a slick campaign with a new young leader. Thatcher won a landslide. She was, it seemed, unstoppable.

If election victories clouded her judgement, so did her past record of successfully railroading her cabinet. That she now had enemies in the party was beyond doubt and one, Michael Heseltine, was very much the Conservative king over the water. More dangerous, as it turned out, was the quiet man of the ‘80s, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Howe’s patience, good manners, loyalty and support had earned him a gradual shunting to the side lines, and some pretty brutal cabinet hand-baggings over the years. As Thatcher grew more strident, her manners got worse, and the dressing downs got more public.

The warning sign was when Lawson resigned, ostensibly because of Mrs Thatcher’s reliance upon the monetarist ideologue Sir Alan Waters as her economic policy adviser. In many ways it was the distance between Thatcher and an increasing number of her senior ministers, and their isolation from an increasingly radical and strident inner circle that they believed was clouding her judgement, that would now undo her.

That it was the so quietly spoken, well-mannered and loyal Howe that delivered the blow was ironic. That it was Howe that did the deed is also what made it fatal. His resignation speech was, on the face of it, centred on European policy. However, in truth, Europe was the peg upon which Howe was making a stinging personal attack. Her stridency, the widening gulf between her and her cabinet, her inner circle, her hubris had clouded, fatally clouded her political judgement: that was the essence of Howe’s attack.

That many of her cabinet agreed with Howe would become evident quite quickly. Ostensibly loyal through the course of her famously ineffective leadership campaign, once she was holed below the waterline in the first ballot, most were quick to tell her the truth, with a prima facie reluctance that for some would very quickly look like blessed relief.

At the time, and I remember the time well, for friend and foe alike it all happened so bloody quickly. For the true believers, it was treachery, and treason ne’er done so rapid or evil. The greatest leader they had ever had, the winner of landslides and slayer of socialism, was now ousted; not at the ballot box, but at the hands of those lesser, oh so lesser men.

In their devotion, and their righteous anger, they blinded themselves to many of the political realities that paved the way for her downfall, whether it be the poll tax of what many Tories called the ‘that bloody woman’ factor (in which may a doorstep rang with the refrain ‘I would vote Tory but for that bloody woman’). Hell hath no treachery like a Tory backbencher in fear of losing his seat. All that might have been true, but for the true believers they had seen it all before: in the darkest hour of her first government she had been the most unpopular prime minister in the history of opinion polling, and she won a landslide in 1983. Her instincts had been right before; she would be right again.

But they would never know. One minute she had been in her pomp lacerating Delors (or ripping Kinnock apart in her farewell), and then she was gone, betrayed by those she had raised up.


And Europe was the causus belli of that war. The victor, John Major, a figure little known to most of his cabinet colleagues or backbenchers, let alone the wider country, was seen to be her heir apparent, the carrier of the Thatcherite torch. Mrs Thatcher famously talked of her abilities as a back-seat driver. He was, of course, his own man in both style and substance. His Conservatism mixed free market economics with an almost Baldwinian belief on One Nation Toryism and even consensus, both anathema to Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

He was also strongly pro-European, seeking from the start to strike up a new and more conciliatory approach in Brussels. In truth, much of what was different owed more to style and Major’s naturally affable character than it did a change in policy, but the tone mattered: Major talked of Britain being ‘at the heart of Europe’. In a government that remained strongly pro-European it made good political sense too.

For the true Thatcherites, it only added to the sense of betrayal. As Mrs Thatcher herself began to be privately and sometimes publicly critical of her successor, the feeling of bitterness only grew. The issue that feeling would become attached to would be Europe in general, and the Maastricht treaty in particular.

Major became prime minister just as the newly reunited Germany and their closest ally France started to push Europe decisively in the direction of monetary union. This would come in the form of a common currency. It would be accompanied by a Social Chapter to protect Europe’s workers, leading to matters such as employment law and welfare rights being cohered across the community (and subject to qualified majority voting); it also had a clearly stated objective of political union.

For his emollient talk, Major was set on resisting all three. From a British perspective, he was pretty successful in doing so: he secured opt-outs from the single currency and Social Chapter, and the removal of all references to a federal Europe. It also put into treaty for the first time the principle of ‘subsidiarity’: that powers should accrue to Brussels only when there was a compelling need; otherwise, powers should devolve.


For Major, Maastricht satisfied British demands and enshrined the essentially intergovernmental nature of the community: it was, he declared ‘game, set and match’ for Britain. There were, however, some supranational elements. In the first place, the rest of the community was now set on the course that would see the creation of the Euro. The treaty also extended the powers of the European parliament and it also extended qualified majority voting. For many of its opponents it was the symbolism of it, in part left in to satisfy Franco-German federal aspirations in title if not in substance. The community was now the European Union, and its peoples had EU citizenship. For some, that was a step too far.

At the time when Maastricht was agreed, in December 1991, the looming general election concentrated Conservative minds. It was an election they were expected to lose, as an ever more slick Labour party under Neil Kinnock led in the opinion polls. For now, then, the Tories who were against Maastricht kept their heads down. For most, Major’s victory in May 1992 was a shock win. It was certainly a political triumph for the party and a personal one for Major, which vindicated the party’s brutal ousting of Mrs Thatcher and his seemingly unlikely elevation.


The triumph would be short-lived. Despite polling more votes than Mrs Thatcher had, the nature of the electoral map had turned against the Conservatives and their success in the popular vote delivered a slim majority of 21. Over time, as by-elections did their work, that majority eroded. Potential rebels held a strong hand.

Then came Black Wednesday. The government remained committed to the ERM. In truth, the pound had gone into the ERM at too high a value, in part as a gesture of political machismo, and in part as a device to discipline the British economy and guard against inflation. By the autumn of 1992, the pound’s place in the ERM at that value was untenable. Faced with a run on sterling, the government tried (as governments always do) to tough it out: Major ruled out devaluation. Behind the scenes, a panicked chancellor, Norman Lamont, tried to persuade the German central bank to cut its interest rates; when they wouldn’t he raised Britain’s base rate and then panicked publicly, raising it to 15%. The government, humiliated, were forced to leave the ERM. The Major honeymoon was over. Arguably his government was fatally damaged: the landslide of 1997 started here.


He had made another error. Instead of putting the Maastricht treaty to the House of Commons at the time (fearing opposition from his own backbenches before the election, perhaps) Major waited until after his victory. By then, things were more difficult. A Danish referendum had rejected Maastricht; a French one almost did. This emboldened Conservative opponents, and Major now had just that small majority. Furthermore, his opponents had time to organise. Meanwhile, the queen over the water weighed in: she had called for withdrawal from the ERM in her last parliamentary speech, and now she called Maastricht ‘a treaty too far’. Major’s opponents now seized upon the Danish referendum as the template; Britain should have its own referendum over Maastricht.

Meanwhile, his small majority that gave the Maastricht rebels a new significance. Of themselves, they were a mixture of long-standing Europhobes such as Teddy Taylor and Bill Cash, as well as lesser-known names, such as Iain Duncan-Smith. The passage of the bill was slow, torturous and bloody. Labour made life as difficult as possible. The third reading of the bill was passed when most Labour MPs tactically abstained. However, the vote on the opt-out over the social chapter saw the government defeated. In the end, it was only when Major made it an issue of confidence, at a time when Labour’s poll lead was over 20 points, that the rebels backed down.

The Maastricht rebellion was over, but Major’s troubles had only just begun. The real problem was that what had come to be known as Euro-scepticism, became the clarion cry of the disenfranchised true believers. And those true believers had a presence in the cabinet. The leading cabinet Euro-sceptic was John Redmond, though the most important was Michael Portillo. Portillo was widely seen as a potential Tory leader, and in these years he was positioning himself as the standard bearer of the right; in so doing, he was careful to burnish his Euro-sceptic credentials.


A stronger prime minister, or one in a stronger position, might have been able to control them better, but Major bristled in impotent frustration at what he came to see as the enemies within, famously calling them the ‘bastards’.


Meanwhile, in November 1994, the whip was withdrawn from a group of Euro-sceptics, including Duncan Smith. By the following June, Major had tactically resigned, to provoke a leadership election. It worked, insofar as the cabinet remained loyal, bar John Redwood, who was trounced (and if any campaign launch gave us the template for David Cameron’s ‘swivel-eyed loons’, it was Redwood’s).


And it was out of all this that the full-blown ‘swivel-eyed loons’ were born, and now beyond the Conservative party. In 1997, to its right was Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party who, despite his very great sums of money, made little impact beyond further deepening rancour on the right: ‘Up your hacienda, Jimmy,’ as David Mellor famously put it.

Of far greater significance would turn out to be Nigel Farage’s UKIP: Farage was, in his day, a Thatcher devotee.

The real story was the Conservatives: the party was tearing itself apart, and its Euro-sceptic wing was on the rise. Most of Major’s closet colleagues shared his frustrations with the ‘bastards’ and their backbench wild men, but were also frustrated at his attempts to conciliate them. Meanwhile, not only the party, but the right-wing press too, were becoming passionately hostile to Europe. As defeat loomed, and Major’s authority ebbed away, would-be successors jostled for position by nailing their Euro-sceptic colours to their political masts. The Conservative party had gone stark raving mad: if Europe was the cause, it was the political ghost of Thatcher that stirred the poisonous pot. A landslide defeat and 13 years in righteous Euro-sceptic opposition followed.

Those of us of a certain age might recognise a curious quasi-biological fact. Those whom we have lost we tend to remember as they were when we lost them. The same, perhaps, applies in politics. Mrs Thatcher inspired loyalty, and hatred; among her own side. The Thatcher they recall is the Thatcher of 1990: the one who was loved by her devotees, but had lost much of her own party and, more so, the wider public. Europe, and Mrs Thatcher, became inextricably associated. There is a half-decent argument that the party and country are reaping that harvest of bitter division as we speak.

The ghost of Margaret Thatcher lives on.


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