Retro day in the Commons! Suddenly, we were back in the era of Oasis, grunge, Ab Fab, Trainspotting – and John Major’s prolonged torment by the Europhobes. We had some of the original cast, too: John Redwood, William Cash, Peter Lilley, one of the three Cabinet ministers Major called “bastards”, were all present and correct. Well, present anyway.
Yes, it was the first round in a fresh 1990s-style bout between pro and anti- Europeans. And those who contemplate Brexit with equanimity didn’t have it all their own way.
Without meeting hard- liners’ demands for different referendum rules, Philip Hammond was fashionably eurosceptic in tone. But then Ken Clarke popped up just as the Foreign Secretary was saying that he had voted Yes in 1975, but for an economic community that wouldn’t undermine “our national sovereignty” – and that he “didn’t remember anyone saying anything about ever-closer union”.
Well, said Mr Clarke, 1975 had been all about pooling sovereignty, and “ever closer union” was in the treaty they had voted for. Mr Hammond’s reply that he was only 18 at the time seemed slightly lame. These days he has clever chaps in his staff who are supposed to get these things right.
Predictably, John Redwood disagreed with Mr Clarke’s later assertion that leaving would be “a fanciful escapist route into isolated nationalism which would greatly diminish our influence in the world and… damage our economy.” “Worry not,” said Clarke’s old adversary airily. “Our jobs and our trade is in no way at risk.”
Labour’s Kate Hoey pointed out that “anti-EU” (which she is) did not mean “anti-European”. But she then spoilt her case for precise language by denouncing the EU’s “dictatorship”.
The SNP’s Alex Salmond argued that the Government had already varied the franchise by allowing peers to vote. So why not 16 and 17 year olds? He should be careful, however, not to become the pro-European Farage by switching off English Yes voters (though cynics might think an English No vote and a Scottish Yes would be just the way to reignite the case for independence).
Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn had fun with David Cameron’s recent contortions of Cabinet freedom to campaign – “In, out, in, out – it’s the EU Tory hokey cokey” – in a grown-up speech which held the Commons. But as in Major’s time, the real action was on the Government benches.
It’s all very well re-running those Nineties hits. You just hope the Tories end up as Friends and not Men Behaving Badly.Reuse content