Paul Hutcheon: May is an­other vic­tim of her party’s 30 year melt­down on Europe

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS FOCUS -

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

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