In the London mansion where Benjamin Franklin negotiated American independence, British rebels gathered to toast their own fight against the European Union and deliver a warning shot to Prime Minister David Cameron.
More than 100 people, including two Conservative Cabinet ministers, descended on the Lansdowne Club last month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Maastricht rebellion, when Tory lawmakers defied Prime Minister John Major and voted against the treaty that created the EU.
Then, 26 lawmakers came close to bringing down the government. Last year, three times as many Conservatives voted against Cameron, pushing for a referendum on British membership of the world’s biggest trading bloc, with most of them arguing for withdrawal. His juggling act will be on display at an EU summit beginning today.
“Parliament is beginning to express the frustration of the average elector in this country,” Nicholas Winterton, now retired from Parliament, one of the Maastricht rebels, said at the Nov. 19 dinner. On his lapel he wore a gold badge in the shape of a pound symbol, from the days of the campaign against joining the euro. “There are a lot of Tories who won their seats in 2010 who made their reputations as candidates on their outspoken opposition to a number of aspects of the European Union,” he said.
Earlier guests had risen to their feet to clap and cheer as he and his fellow rebels walked into the 18th-century ballroom. A portrait of Margaret Thatcher, the former Tory prime minister who encouraged him and others to vote against Major, hung from the podium.
As Europe’s sovereign debt crisis drags on, rank-and-file Conservatives are increasingly calling for Britain to distance itself from an institution that they see as infringing U.K. sovereignty in areas from labor to immigration to human rights. They say it’s no longer the “Common Market” that Britain agreed to join more than 40 years ago, and that the U.K. might be better off outside the bloc, more like Norway or Switzerland.
Still, almost 52 percent of Britain’s trade last year was with the rest of the EU, with imports and exports adding up to 361 billion pounds ($582 billion), emphasizing the U.K.’s integration into the bloc’s single market. That’s something even euro-skeptics say they would want to remain part of. And even as the Tory euro-skepticism has grown, none of the U.K.’s main financial institutions have expressed concern about a loss of access to that market.
At different times, different British political parties have been anti-Europe. Labour’s 1983 election campaign program supported withdrawal from the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today’s EU.
Since 1997, the Conservatives have become increasingly hostile. There’s little evidence, though, that the public sees Europe as a significant topic. Polling company Ipsos Mori has been asking people to name important issues facing Britain since 1974. Relations with Europe haven’t been named by more than 10 percent since 2005.
Still, under pressure from his party, Cameron has signaled he’d be prepared to offer a referendum on a renegotiated relationship with the EU after the next election due in 2015.
In a speech to the diners at the anti-Maastricht celebration, Mark Pritchard, a Tory lawmaker who resigned from Cameron’s government in March, mocked that referendum commitment as “jam tomorrow.” He questioned whether the Conservatives would be able to win the election and honor the pledge.
Cameron said Dec. 10 he’ll set out his plans soon to renegotiate membership and that he’ll be arguing for Britain to stay in the EU. He denied this would mean confronting his party.
“Over the coming years there’s going to be a big opportunity for a fresh settlement,” Cameron told journalists at a lunch in London. “The settled will of the Conservative Party is absolutely in tune with the settled will of the country. We know in our heads we need to be part of this organization because we are a trading nation, but we know in our hearts we would like the relationship to work better.”
What the outcome of a referendum would be is unclear. As in 1975, when Britons were offered the chance to leave the EEC in the only popular vote to have been held on membership, those arguing for staying in would include the leaders of all three main parties. Against them would be many Conservative lawmakers and the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, which recently scored its best-ever results in special elections to fill House of Commons vacancies, finishing second in two held on Nov. 29.
In 1975, 67 percent voted to stay in. With the countries that use the euro moving for closer integration, U.K. opponents of EU membership say the argument is swinging their way.
“We want to get our country back, which means making our laws in our own Parliament,” Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was cited as telling the Daily Telegraph newspaper in an interview last week.
The country’s two biggest-selling newspapers, the Sun and the Mail, are both euro-skeptic in tone. A YouGov Plc poll in July found people saying they’d vote to leave the EU by 48 percent to 31 percent. Still, that changed to 42 percent backing remaining in the union over 34 percent who favored leaving in a scenario where Cameron was arguing for staying.
“When a referendum actually comes along, people normally swing towards the status quo,” YouGov pollster Anthony Wells said in an interview. “There’d be businesses talking about losing trade, unions worrying about jobs. What these polls really tell us is that British people don’t like the EU much.”
Paterson and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers were both at the dinner, though they didn’t join in the applause for the passages in the speeches that directly attacked government policy. Still, they listened as Bill Cash, a Maastricht rebel still serving in Parliament, made clear he would continue to defy his leadership.
Cash argued that while the Maastricht rebellion hadn’t kept Britain out of the EU, it had set the pattern for subsequent arguments and helped keep the country out of the euro. “It laid the foundations for the political war of attrition which has persisted to the present day,” he said.
The chief victim of that war of attrition 20 years ago was the Conservative Party, which developed an image of being divided and, in Cameron’s words, “banging on about Europe.” That image was one factor in three consecutive election defeats by Tony Blair’s “New Labour” starting in 1997, keeping it out of power for the next 13 years.
Ipsos Mori went from finding the Conservatives most likely to be identified as “the most clear and united,” with 36 percent picking it ahead of the 1992 election, to it being the least, with 12 percent picking it in 1994.
Conservative opponents of EU membership argue that Cameron’s refusal to call a plebiscite before 2015 harms their electoral prospects. One, Michael Fabricant, argued last month for an electoral pact with UKIP, arguing that promising a referendum would stop the Conservatives losing support to the anti-EU party.
Michael Ashcroft, an upper-house Tory lawmaker who funds independent polls, argues that this misunderstands why UKIP has gained support. He blames “a lack of Tory direction and grip” rather than hostility to Europe. On his blog, he wrote that UKIP “remains largely a protest vehicle for those who are fed up with the main parties.”
Within Parliament, too, Europe’s not the only thing inflaming rebellion among the Tories, some of whose lawmakers deplore Cameron’s decision to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Conservatives in the Commons spent two sessions this week attacking the government over plans to introduce gay marriage.
“I’m struck by the vitriol they’re pouring on their own ministers,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and author of a book on parliamentary rebels, said in an interview. “It’s more than Europe. But Europe is the gift that keeps giving. Other issues come and go, but Europe keeps coming back. It’s incendiary for them.”
Even were the public to again begin listing the EU as a concern, there’s no guarantee it would help the Conservatives with the electorate. According to Ipsos Mori, the high point for concern about relations with Europe was April 1997, when 43 percent judged it important. In the following month’s election, the Labour Party gained its largest parliamentary majority under Tony Blair, a pro-European who was considering joining the euro.
None of that holds sway with the current generation of anti-EU Conservatives. “I’m just an apprentice,” Pritchard, 46, told the dinner, as he praised the rebels of 1992. “I’m just an understudy to those who went before.”