The rebellion's over, not the party: Major called the bluff of the sceptics and they will not trouble him again, says Robert Blake

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THE CONSERVATIVE Party has seldom been more bitterly divided than it was last Thursday and Friday over the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty. The rebels are said to be particularly incensed by the Prime Minister making the Social Chapter an issue of confidence and threatening a dissolution of Parliament if he lost. But what else could they have expected? No prime minister, after months of wrangling in both houses, could have allowed this tedious and contentious dispute to linger on until the autumn. He was right to call the bluff of dissident Tories who, for the purpose of destroying the treaty, were prepared to vote for an amendment whose provisions they detested.

One has to go back to the days of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 to find a comparable betrayal of convictions for an ulterior purpose. After the repeal, the opponents of the prime minister were determined on revenge. Sir Robert Peel had introduced a Bill to suspend habeas corpus in Ireland because of disorder and terrorism. Bentinck and Disraeli, who had led the revolt against him, were by conviction strongly in favour of 'Irish coalition' as it was called, but they and enough of their supporters voted with the Liberals to defeat Peel and force his resignation. The Duke of Wellington described the alliance as a 'blackguard combination'.

John Major could have said the same about the voting on Thursday - in fact some reports suggest that he used very similar words in comments off-camera. He was fully justified in doing what Peel, because of parliamentary arithmetic, could not do - rub the rebels' noses in the dirt and force them to choose between ruining their party or keeping in power the government that had won them the general election and to which they should have owed at least a flicker of that loyalty once described as the Tories' 'secret weapon' - ironic though the phrase must seem in present circumstances.

The dissent in the Conservative Party over Maastricht is often compared with the anger aroused by the Corn Law crisis. If the comparison is valid the party has good cause for alarm. For practical purposes, the Conservatives were to be out of power for a political generation, only regaining it 28 years later in 1874. But is there really any parallel?

Peel was repudiated by a majority of his party, whereas Major has to cope with a minority of about 24. Peel could be accused of going back on an electoral pledge to protect agriculture. Major and his colleagues, albeit in smallish print, made it perfectly clear in their manifesto last year that they intended to ratify Maastricht. No one could have had any doubt about it, or feel double-crossed by the Prime Minister. What people may feel, however, is that he has handled the whole question in a manner that is open to much criticism.

In retrospect one could see that he ought to have held a referendum either immediately after the end of the Maastricht negotiations or soon after the general election of April 1992. At either time the public might well have endorsed the treaty. The rebels would have accepted the verdict, as Tony Benn and his followers accepted continued membership of the EEC after the 1975 referendum. Much bitterness might have been avoided and the Bill could have been passed reasonably quickly. Instead, resistance built up.

We had the unnecessary and incomprehensible 'paving' resolution in November. It aroused great anger because of the arm-twisting tactics of the whips and it was won by so narrow a margin that the dissidents were encouraged to pursue their opposition almost to the last moment. Only when threatened with the Prime Minister's nuclear weapon, a general election, did the Eurosceptics surrender.

It can be argued that he should have used it earlier and that he appeased the rebels for too long. Use it he did, however, in the end. I believe, contrary to the headlines about 'pyrrhic victory' and 'Major licking his wounds', that his decision to adopt such a high-risk strategy will have raised, not lowered his stature with a public clamouring for stronger leadership.

I believe, moreover, that the Conservative Party is not in such a parlous condition as some observers claim. With Europe out of the way it should be in a position to try to do something about the things that trouble the electorate. These do not include Europe, regarded as the bore of all time, but unemployment, crime, health, education, bureaucracy and public expenditure. On these issues the Eurosceptics, however sullen, should not trouble the Prime Minister. Although fanatics on Maastricht, they are otherwise a respectable and respected group of experienced parliamentarians who hold a variety of views on most matters. They are unlikely to form a permanent anti-Government clique.

This presupposes that Europe really has 'gone away'. If it has not; if the Government, under pressure from a federalising Brussels, were to be mad enough to re-enter the ERM or, worse still, accede to a European currency union, the Eurosceptics would have every cause to move into action again and press for a referendum at the very least, as Lord Lawson recommended in the House of Lords.

It is, however, most unlikely that any British government will now make such a federalist move. If the prolonged argument in both houses of Parliament and in the country about Maastricht has done anything, it has ensured that steps towards that 'ever-closer union' in Europe simply will not happen, at any rate not under a Conservative government.

The Conservative Party has in the past shown a remarkable capacity for recovering unity, even after ferocious disputes. By the end of the summer recess the feuds and battles may come to be seen as storms in a teacup. The Prime Minister will certainly wish to reconcile the Eurosceptics with the rest of the party and avoid anything in the nature of a witch-hunt. His majority is far too small for that. As regards the rebels, he might well follow the advice of one of his predecessors, A J Balfour: 'I never forgive but I always forget.'

Lord Blake is historian of the Conservative Party.

(Photograph omitted)