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A jolly good rebellion: but to what end?

The whipless ones have been restored amid much rejoicing. Donald Macintyre assesses the longer-term impact of their protest on Tory party fortunes Patricia Wynn Davies records the squeeze put on government during five dissident months
There was never going to be an easy way of bringing the rebels back. "They must think they're pop stars," exclaimed one passer-by as the seven returnees stood in the warm spring sunshine on St Stephen's Green yesterday, each giving simultaneous television interviews - in what could scarcely have looked less like a last hurrah - on how they had conceded nothing in returning to the party fold.

The defiant emphasis on the unconditional nature of their re- admission painfully underlines how few cards the Government had to play. As one senior minister on the party's pro-European wing put it: "If only we could have had something back from them - anything ...." And this was a man sympathetic to the predicament the Prime Minister had faced.

For predicament it was. There was heavy, non-ideological pressure from the grassroots activists knocking on doors for Mr Major to do anything that could lessen the incubus of disunity before the local elections a week tomorrow.

What's more, the rebels had done their best to ensure that it looked just as weak to leave them in the cold as to bring them back to the party. Last week Nicholas Budgen, the most sophisticated and the least relentlessly oppositionist of them, cleverly taunted John Major with the charge that the Prime Minister was keeping them outside the party first because he wanted to use them as an alibi for certain defeat in the coming local elections; and, second, because he wanted to ensure that none of their names could be added to the list of 33 MPs required to force a leadership contest in November.

The whips, if only for reasons of party discipline, had wanted more evidence of loyalty in the division lobbies: they were the last converts to the cause of readmission. But they were forced to note that even among the loyalist MPs, the overwhelming desire was to put the episode behind the party. Finally, the very slenderness of the Government's majority made it increasingly perilous to leave the rebels twisting in the wind.

It was difficult, nevertheless, to remember yesterday that the rebels are not running the show. When the whipless ones gloat openly over their success in "shifting" government policy, when the still menacingly amiable Kenneth Baker asserts that they had "assisted" the Government, when even the party chairman, Jeremy Hanley, says the revolt had created "an element of clarification" in the Government's policy on Europe, it begins to look as if these nine disparate backbench figures have somehow single-handedly pulled off a historic shift in the Conservative Party.

It isn't, of course, as simple as that. For one thing, the rebels are merely the most wayward reflection of a much wider constituency within the parliamentary Tory party. Tony Blair yesterday dealt Major his most damaging Commons blow yet by declaring that while he led his party, Major followed his. But just what kind of party is underlined in a survey in the new issue of Political Quarterly. On almost every European question the figures vindicate the argument by Euro-sceptics that the party has shifted decisively their way.

Yes, 59 per cent of MPs - one might say only 59 per cent - believe the "disadvantages of EC membership have been outweighed by the advantages". But consider some other findings about MPs' attitudes in what was once the European party. Those disagreeing that Britain should join a single currency because of the economic consequences of remaining outside: 68 per cent. Those disagreeing that environmental taxation should be harmonised within the EU: 69 per cent. Those disagreeing that in principle there should be an EU strategy on training: 70 per cent. Those agreeing that agriculture should be handled under subsidiarity at the national level: 57 per cent. Those agreeing that a single EU currency would signal the end of the UK as a sovereign nation: 51 per cent. Those agreeing that there should be a national referendum before the UK enters a single currency: 55 per cent.

Against this startling statistical background, and compounded by a shift in public opinion against Europe, other developments helped to ensure that the whipless ones never became the lepers they might have been. Norman Lamont, by raising in his fringe speech at the party conference in Bournemouth last year the spectre of EU withdrawal, helped to make respectable every shade of sentiment short of that in favour of withdrawal. "Norman Tebbit is on our side now," one passionately pro-European MP wryly remarked, shortly after that speech.

So it is probably wrong to see Mr Major's rehabilitation of the rebels as merely a short-term attempt to enhance his own chances of survival. In the dispassionate words yesterday of one right-wing MP, a man who would like to see Michael Portillo leading the party, the move is "leadership neutral".

And that's probably right. The party will enter a period of extreme turbulence after the local elections: results of the sort the Conservatives are about to face cannot but destabilise the party. There will be calls for a reshuffle; Sir George Gardiner, it is safe to predict, will insist that Kenneth Clarke slashes taxes or go, and there will be inevitable speculation about the leadership. But there is still quite a lot of wise money resting on the proposition that Mr Major will survive such disturbances, and not only because there are some slender shreds of polling evidence that his position is slightly improving.

First, the Tory leader has an answer, to the executive of the 1922 committee, or the men in grey suits, or even in the unlikely event that 33 MPs are brave enough to demand his departure, after the local elections. And it is this: that since there is a procedure for ousting a party leader each November, they can jolly well wait until then, by which time it might well be another story. If anything, the fact that Mr Major has ignored the fear that Tony Marlow or Teresa Gorman might swell the ranks of those seeking to oust him can be read as a sign of relative self-confidence.

Second, those on the right who dream of Michael Heseltine being carried shoulder high into Downing Street without a contest, and then conveniently running a Euro-sceptic government against all his past form, should dream on; first, it is still a racing certainty that Michael Portillo would stand, and there is plenty of room for thinking that Kenneth Clarke would, too. For all his harmony with Heseltine on many issues, he would not necessarily stand by and let the President win by acclaim. The organic chemistry of the Conservative Party does not currently encourage the notion of a bloodless change in leadership. Which is a point rather in favour of Mr Major staying.

In the end, a more potent consequence of the return of the whipless may not be to do directly with the leadership but with the medium- to long-term prospects for Tory unity. At present there is a concordat, what one senior Cabinet minister aptly calls the "sullen truce", based, in the case of the single currency, on a lowest common denominator: of keeping the option to join or not join, keeping the possibility of a referendum alive, and a prime ministerial ordinance to the Cabinet not to debate it in public. It could just hold until the general election; on the one hand, elections are potent forces for unity; on the other, the imminence of the single currency as an issue will impose severe strains.

If, fortified by the rebels' "victory", not to mention those seductive research figures on MPs' attitudes, the right in the Cabinet reopen the debate by, for instance, pressing for a manifesto commitment not to join EMU, they will not find their path clear. The biggest beasts in the Cabinet would surely not go gentle into that EMU-free good night. Kenneth Clarke consistently, and Michael Heseltine less frequently but equally lethally, have shown as much. Mr Clarke in particular is not about to go down in history as the first Tory Euro-sceptic Chancellor (Norman Lamont, as a signatory to the Maastricht Treaty and executor of British ERM membership, doesn't qualify). And Douglas Hurd, professedly agnostic on the issue, is unlikely to want to close off the options.

However much it looks otherwise bathed in the brightness of television lights on St Stephen's Green, the Euro-sceptic right should not imagine it now holds all the cards.