Tory generals face mutiny in the ranks: Andrew Gamble assesses survey evidence highlighting backbench dissent on Europe

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The Independent Online
AT ONE time the idea that the Conservative Party might split over Europe seemed far- fetched, but it has become an ever- greater possibility. The situation bears resemblance to the two other occasions in the past 150 years when the party split - over tariff reform in 1903 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In both cases it was a fundamental issue about Britain's national interests in a changing global economy that divided the party.

The difficulty the leadership faces is that there is no middle ground. Our survey of Conservative MPs and MEPs, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out during the European elections in June, shows there is now a clear majority of backbenchers supporting nationalist and Euro-sceptic positions - a significantly stronger opposition than was apparent during the Maastricht Bill rebellion.

The Conservative leadership has been sensitive to opinion shifts on the back benches, and Major's new 'British Agenda', which formed the basis for the European election campaign, was designed to maximise party support and prevent further polarisation. Major is not being pushed by a hard core of rebels into making concessions, as is sometimes alleged. His difficulty is that he has to manage a parliamentary party that contains a majority broadly hostile to any further moves to integration and a minority that is strongly in favour. In the Cabinet that position is reversed with a majority supporting the view that Britain must remain at the heart of Europe in order to shape developments, even if this means making concessions.

Our survey indicates that many specific details of the party's European policy have strong backbench support. Retaining control of immigration, asylum and national borders is supported by 81 per cent, 82 per cent and 74 per cent respectively. Sixty- nine per cent backed opposition to a supranational energy tax and the same percentage agreed that Britain should not join a future single currency, whatever the economic consequences. Only 16 per cent of backbenchers thought that membership of some sort of ERM was essential in the fight against inflation.

THE one issue on which there is virtual unanimity in the party is the Social Chapter. Only 4 per cent of backbench MPs thought that Britain should adopt it.

Yet Major's success in rallying the party behind his agenda in the European elections may prove ephemeral. Norman Lamont's intervention at the conference this week indicates some of the difficulties ahead. In the run-up to the 1996 Intergovernmental Conference, Major is likely to find it difficult to bridge the gulf in party opinion. Sixty-four per cent of backbenchers agreed with the rebel position that sovereignty cannot be pooled and that Britain should never permit its monetary policy to be determined by an independent European central bank. Fifty four per cent agreed with the rebel demand that there should be a national referendum before the UK enters a single currency.

On the future distribution of constitutional power, 61 per cent of backbenchers take the extreme rebel line that the Commission should lose the right to initiate legislation and 56 per cent wanted a new Act of Supremacy, to make explicit the supremacy of Parliament over EU legislation.

Major faces significant minorities, ranging between 50 and 90 backbenchers, who are in conflict with majority parliamentary party opinion on a wide range of European issues. Both camps are increasingly intransigent and with the Intergovernmental Conference looming, the problem is unlikely to go away.

The writer is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. The ESRC survey was conducted with Steve Ludlam of Sheffield and David Baker of Nottingham Trent University.