Former U.K. Prime Minister John Major, whose time in office was dominated by intra-party squabbles over Europe, told today’s Conservative lawmakers to lay off the issue and avoid undermining his successor David Cameron.
Major led the Conservatives from 1990 to 1997, in which time his government nearly fell as opponents of European integration in his own party repeatedly voted against him. Cameron last month tried to pacify the same forces in his party by pledging to renegotiate membership of the EU and hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether to stay in the bloc.
Speaking at the Chatham House international affairs center, the former prime minster told lawmakers that they shouldn’t think “offering advice” to Cameron would lead other countries to “hear the strength of feeling and immediately capitulate.” Such behavior means Cameron “would be seen to be acting under duress,” Major said. “I’ve been there.”
Major said Cameron should appoint a personal negotiator to the EU, and give them a seat in Cabinet. If the prime minister’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners were to object, Major said, “the prime minister should overrule them. The tail must not wag the dog.”
His advice on negotiations was to hold them “courteously and with understanding. If we enter them with the aggressive attitude of ‘give us our way or we will quit,’ we will fail.”
In a Feb. 11 Parliamentary session, some Conservatives argued that Cameron’s success this month in negotiating a cut in the EU budget showed that threatening to leave had worked.
Major said that for some in the party, “whatever is offered to them will be insufficient. They will demand more, they will only be satisfied with withdrawal.” He said leaving would hurt the economy, cutting off the U.K. from its largest market.
“Being inside the EU can often be frustrating, but outside we would be at a serious competitive disadvantage,” he said.