Paul Hutcheon: May is another victim of her party’s 30 year meltdown on Europe
SOME left-wingers can resort to childishness when attributing blame for society’s problems, big or small. Whether it be under-funded public services, badly-behaved companies, or even a misplaced paving stone, there will always be an angry man in the pub who says: “It’s Thatcher’s fault.”
But as Theresa May faces up to a Brexit rebellion that could trigger her imminent departure from Downing Street, it is hard not to point an accusing finger at the country’s first female Prime Minister.
Mrs Thatcher’s euro-scepticism not only brought about her own resignation from office, but it also helped bring down John Major and David Cameron. Expect the Europe “issue” to humble another Tory Prime Minister.
You would need a psychologist to understand the Conservative Party’s split personality on the EU. Edward Heath took us in to the European Economic Community (EC) in 1973. Mrs Thatcher deepened the relationship after backing the Single European Act in 1986. She was an architect of integration.
But she gradually changed her mind and by 1988 was railing against a European project she helped create. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels,” she said, in her famous Bruges speech.
Two years later, responding to a call by European Commission president Jacques Delors for the Parliament in Brussels to be the democratic body of the European Community, she roared: “No, No, No.” Cabinet Minister Geoffrey Howe, anxious about the Prime Minister’s increasingly strident tone, quit and warned her “not to retreat into a ghetto of sentimentality about our past and so diminish our own control over our own destiny in the future”.
She was gone soon after - following prodding by europhiles such as Ken Clarke - but it was clear her party’s attitude towards Europe was shifting from pragmatic acceptance to theological opposition. Tory hostility to Europe grew when Mr Major, himself a pragmatist, succeeded the Iron Lady. He faced a leadership challenge in 1995 from Thatcherite MP John Redwood, who put the country’s relationship with the EU at the forefront of his campaign.
Mr Major won, but his limp and lifeless administration was hamstrung by divisions over Europe.
A prolonged period of Opposition ensured that taking potshots at the EU, once a minority preoccupation in the Tory Party, had become mainstream party policy.
The first three leaders in this phase - William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard - collectively stoked resentment against Brussels. Euroscepticism had become the lifeblood of UK conservatism in the same way as social justice was part of Labour’s DNA.
David Cameron inherited a party in 2005 that had become hostile to the UK’s membership of the EU, rather than simply opposing further integration. He initially fudged calls for an In/Out referendum, but caved in to internal pressure in 2013. The majority he achieved two years later meant he was expected to deliver.
However, Cameron did not have to push ahead with an In/Out vote. He could have faced down his party and told colleagues that, in the national interest, there would be a vote on the renegotiation deal he had agreed with Brussels, not overall membership.
After voters backed Leave in the referendum, he too left the stage. He had stepped on a rake and smashed himself in the face. May, a decent woman committed to public service, volunteered to clean up Cameron’s mess and has tried, valiantly, to secure a withdrawal agreement with Europe. But her botched decision to back a general election last year left her with a dreadful hand; no parliamentary majority appears to exist for any Brexit deal.
It might not be this week, or next month, but May will fall. She will be the fourth Tory Prime Minister in succession to be sucked up by the same tornado. All over an issue, it should be noted, that obsesses her party, not the country.
Theresa May’s Brexit draft agreement triggered a campaign on the Conservative backbenches to secure the 48 signatures required to force a no confidence vote in the under-fire leader
It could be argued Mrs Thatcher is to blame for hostility towards Europe