Wrapped in the flag: Struggling to survive, John Major has played the patriotic card. Stephen Castle reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Conservative Central Council last met, a year ago in Harrogate, Europe was also at the top of the agenda. John Major warned that the obstructiveness of the Euro- sceptics threatened to damage Britain's international standing 'almost beyond repair'. The party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, complained that the rebels were trying choose policies from an 'a la carte menu'. Kenneth Clarke, then Home Secretary, accused the Europhobes of indulging in 'Monty Pythonesque exchanges' in the Commons.

A year on, the Prime Minister who wanted Britain to be at the heart of Europe has wrapped himself in the Union Jack. He denounces John Smith, the Labour leader, as the poodle of Brussels and he declares himself 'a European more in my head than in my heart'.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, goes back and forth to Brussels talking tough, but at the same time reminds the faithful that they are members of the party of Europe, of Heath and Macmillan. And Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, previously thought to be pro-Europeans, are busy publicly raising two fingers to the EU.

It must be confusing to be a Tory activist these days. Has the party really turned against Europe in a desperate bid for electoral salvation? Should a loyal member be pro, or anti? Are the Euro-sceptics rebels, or the guardians of the true flame?

In a manner typical of the European debate, much of the argument is desperately arcane, revolving as it does around the constitutional mechanism of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). However, such is the depth of the crisis QMV has provoked that, when the Cabinet met last Thursday, it did not have time for any domestic business at all.

THE ISSUE has been doing the rounds in Brussels and Whitehall for almost a year, and before Christmas, papers about it were going to Cabinet committees. It concerns changes to the voting system which would take account of the admission to the European Union of four new member states: Norway, Finland, Sweden and Austria.

Enlargement of the EU has long been the centrepiece of British policy. After the Berlin Wall came down, British diplomats and leaders spoke of the need to broaden the Community (as it then was), and ultimately to embrace some of the new countries of the East. This would entrench democracy and extend the trading bloc. Yes, said Britain's partners, but first we must deepen the Community to make it more cohesive, more democratic and more effective. No, answered Britain, the bigger Community will never keep to a tight rein. On the contrary, said the partners, it will never keep to a loose rein. In the end, deepening (code for Maastricht) came first, and Britain opted out of much of it. In the course of the argument, however, this country had become the champion of enlargement.

These enlargement negotiations soon began, but it was recognised early on that they had constitutional implications. Most matters are settled in the EU Council of Ministers by majority vote. There are, in total, 76 votes, shared out among the present 12 member states with the bigger countries having more than the small, although not in proportion to population. Under the EU rules, a simple majority of votes is not enough; if the opponents of a measure can muster just 23 votes they can block it.

It was inevitable that a bigger Union would mean a change to these procedures. The total of votes will rise from 76 to 90, but should the minimum number needed for a blocking minority be increased in proportion, to 27?

It might seem a simple step, but it is an indisputable fact that a move to 27 would make it more difficult to block EU legislation. If Britain wanted to put together a blocking minority, it would have to attract more member states to its side.

When the issue was first aired in EU discussions last autumn, Britain indicated its reservations and there were signs that these were shared by other countries, particularly Germany. At last December's Brussels summit Britain raised it again, but it was put off, partly because the Belgians, whose presidency was about to end, saw a row coming and preferred to leave it to their Greek successors. Meanwhile, the negotiations for the admission of the new member countries moved towards a conclusion.

When the voting issue finally came to a head last month, Britain opened by declaring its determination to keep the veto at 23 votes rather than 27, hoping that this view would attract strong support. These hopes proved unfounded - only Spain came in on Britain's side - and the result was a sense of betrayal. One Cabinet minister said bitterly: 'Other countries had given a different impression of their position at the time when this got under way.'

The Foreign Office quickly came to the view that the British position was untenable, and the ambassador in Brussels, Sir John Kerr, was said to be advising compromise.

In fact, Britain has rarely employed the blocking minority procedure. In December 1993 an alliance of Germany, the Netherlands and Britain saw off the opposition in a dispute about the Gatt trade negotiations. They have 25 votes between them but never cast them; the threat was enough.

This is the norm. Disagreements are legion, votes rare. The political culture of Brussels abhors outright confrontation. 'That is not the way things are done,' said a Foreign Office official. 'If there is a group of countries that can block a Commission proposal, they don't do it. That is how it has worked in the past. That is the way it will always work. It is not run by putting their hands up.'

In any case, it was pointed out, if the Government really wanted to push its arguments on QMV to a crisis, the only threat it could employ to get its way was to torpedo its own prize policy. Obstruct the voting change and enlargement would have to be postponed or cancelled. It was not a promising strategy. A Foreign Office minister, asked what government policy was, replied: 'Stand firm - then retreat.'

BY THE time this view emerged, however, there was more at stake than diplomacy. There was the matter of British domestic politics, forthcoming elections, the Government's future and the divisions in the Conservative Party.

With the memory of Maastricht fresh in their minds, ministers were undoubtedly nervous of an issue which might set the Euro-sceptics in Westminster off again. The last thing they wanted was another round of bloody party in-fighting.

In fact, these fears were probably misplaced. The consensus on all sides now is that, had Mr Hurd settled quietly on 27 votes earlier this year, few people would have noticed.

Since the Maastricht treaty became law, marking the defeat of the cause which had drawn them together, the Euro-sceptic grouping has receded from view, but it has not disappeared altogether. Earlier this year the hard core of 25-30 rebels began meeting again. Their group, chaired by the former minister Michael Spicer, is called Fresh Start, a phrase taken from an Early Day Motion signed by 91 Conservative MPs at the height of the Maastricht row. Fresh Start is peopled by all the best- known backbench sceptics, including Nicholas Budgen, Sir Teddy Taylor, Teresa Gorman, Tony Marlow and, of course, Bill Cash.

A handful of these MPs simply want to get Britain out of Europe, but most would concur with Ms Gorman's creed: 'I wish with all my heart we could be an offshore island like Hong Kong, a free trade area with the minimum of government intervention and the maximum of business activity.'

How this might be achieved is a matter of some debate among them. Some believe they need a more positive agenda in the run-up to 1996, when the EU must decide on its next steps in the Maastricht process. Others believe they should simply bide their time. In the short term, however, they faced an important decision on tactics for the European Parliament elections in June. Their chosen course was an interesting one: they would keep a low profile. Electoral disaster was in the offing and the sceptics did not want to be blamed for it. Better, they thought, to toe the line and then exploit the expected defeat at the polls to argue that the Government was too soft on Europe. 'We were,' said one right-winger, 'going round telling Bill (Cash) to keep quiet.'

This was their policy, then, when the row over QMV blew up - a row which they had no direct role in creating but which, by contrast, appeared to be the creation of the very ministers who had defeated them last year. In the words of one sceptic: 'It was just a wonderful gift. I could go to the media as a loyalist. When asked 'What if Mr Major compromises?' I could say: 'I'm quite sure he would not want to throw away this wonderful party unity.' '

All at once the Conservatives seemed united on a European issue. Mr Major's new tough stance - portraying QMV as a matter of principle in Britain's fight against European centralisation - delighted the right, while pro-Europeans were invisible (they had been told by the whips to refuse interviews). But is this a false impression? Are the Conserva tives really turning against Europe?

The answer is probably yes, but the explanation is by no means simple. Over Maastricht, 29 MPs voted more than 15 times against the Government and an additional 18 joined occasional rebellions. The 'Fresh Start' motion, however, attracted 91 signatures, demonstrating the existence of a wider group that is sympathetic to the arguments of the anti-Europeans but reluctant to rebel. This group has gained in strength and confidence, and much of the party has moved with it.

Several factors lie behind this. One is private Conservative Central Office polling indicating an increase in scepticism about Europe among the wider public. Another is structural: party membership is shrinking, giving greater authority to the concentration of hardened activists hostile to Brussels.

One Cabinet minister who is usually in the centre ground said last week: 'I think there has been a significant increase in the number of concerns that underlay the word 'subsidiarity'. There is a significantly greater resistance than there was in 1989 to things being perceived as imposed by the Community institutions. The perception is of interference.'

But the biggest cause of change is Mr Major's weakness. Through his many mishaps, from ERM to 'back to basics', he has counted on economic recovery to save him, but that is coming so slowly and so grudgingly that it might not be enough to do the trick. The forthcoming European and local elections promise to be a storm even a strong prime minister would have difficulty weathering, with Conservative votes and representation likely to fall to historic lows. Beyond that lies the possibility of a hostile report from Lord Justice Scott on the arms-for-Iraq affair.

In the words of one leftish Tory MP, John Major's change of stance on Europe is 'the clearest indication yet that he sees the prospect of a leadership campaign in the autumn'.

If that is true, then he is not the only one playing the Euro- sceptic card. The Cabinet's traditional left-wingers, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, have been demonstrating their keen awareness that they would need some support from the right in the event of a leadership contest. Last month Mr Heseltine attacked 'Euro- sclerosis' in a speech which marked a departure from his pro-European vision. Mr Clarke has let it be known that he took a tough line against compromise on the voting issue in Cabinet.

Some see an even more sinister exercise taking place, with the left putting pressure on Mr Major to adopt an un tenable position on QMV. According to one source: 'Heseltine and Clarke have a vested interest in making sure Major goes out to the end of this particular branch and then seeing it drop off.'

Mr Major cannot afford to be outflanked, to appear less sceptical than his potential rivals. It is also true that the factor which served him in 1990, when he became party leader, may serve him again: the right of the party does not have a credible alternative candidate for the leadership. In so far as he has a base in the party, it is on the right.

Yet wrapping himself in the flag ahead of the elections is a gamble. As one ex-minister put it: 'Nobody knows how this will play with the voters, particularly if it is portrayed in the media as negative towards Europe.'

The pollsters are wary. Robert Worcester, chairman of Mori, argued: 'The public is highly sceptical of this Government. Europe is a low-salience issue in the public's mind and only 10 per cent of people think they can trust ministers to tell the truth anyway.'

Nor has the new line convinced the Tory tabloids. The Daily Mail asked: 'Will the real Mr Major stand up, please? Until he does, most of us may be forgiven for treating his freshly acquired Euro-scepticism with some old-fashioned scepticism of our own.'

The left of the Conservative party, meanwhile, is fuming. Mr Major has, they argue, 'lost all control of his senses'. According to one MP, the Prime Minister wins only 'short-term popularity from people who would tear him apart if they could'.

An anti-Brussels election campaign could, critics warn, hasten his demise: 'This language will be popular with the type of Tory who probably will not even vote on 9 June, the one who sits in the pub saying they're all f***ing wogs.' That, argues the left, was the lesson of 1989, when Lady Thatcher's 'Diet of Brussels' campaign produced an election disaster.

There is another problem: Mr Major may have heightened the parliamentary party's expectations on QMV beyond what may be achievable. A poor compromise presents particular danger; one veteran rebel asked last week: 'A cat has nine lives; how many has a prat?'

Small wonder then, that when Mr Heseltine and Mr Clarke arrived to speak on the same platform as Mr Major in Plymouth yesterday, one or two Tories were harking back to a party conference more than 30 years ago: Blackpool in 1963. With Britain's policy on Europe in disarray and the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, a lame duck, the contenders for his job took the opportunity to parade their wares before the party faithful.

Additional reporting by Paul Routledge.

(Photographs omitted)

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