David Jones is MP for Clwyd West and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
Over the next three or four months, it is more likely than not that I will be heavily involved in a campaign that will bring me into direct conflict with the position adopted by a Conservative Prime Minister.
This is a state of affairs that causes me considerable angst. For well over 40 years, through thick and thin (sometimes very thin indeed), I have loyally supported the Conservative Party and its leaders, some of whom, in all frankness, I regarded as considerably less than inspiring. I did so because, like most other members, I felt that the party best reflected my own values and offered the best vision of the sort of country I wanted to live in.
However, it is very probable that at some late hour tonight or early tomorrow, David Cameron will emerge from the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels and announce that he has secured a deal on EU membership that he can recommend to the British people in a referendum to be held as early as June. And I know that, whatever that deal is, it will be nowhere near good enough for me to support him.
I am sure that many other Conservatives across the country will share my disappointment at having to campaign against our party leader. Loyalty is, or should be, one of the great Conservative virtues. However, there will be large numbers – perhaps a majority – of Tories who take the view that the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU is one in which they have to put the interests of their country first.
Today, in the columns of The Times, Tim Montgomerie announces that he is leaving the Conservative Party. He explains that he was inspired to join the party by Margaret Thatcher because of her strength as a leader who knew that “it was what you did with power that counted”. Could David Cameron, Tim wonders, be much more different? He then proceeds to reel off a catalogue of the Prime Minister’s deficiencies in comparison with the virtues of the late Mrs T.
Tim’s is a well-crafted, harsh and incendiary article. No doubt he intended it to be so. His departure from the party is the political equivalent of that of the alienated husband who shreds the contents of his wife’s wardrobe and keys the paintwork of her car before speeding down the driveway towards the solicitor’s office. It’s brutal, personal stuff.
As a young man, like Tim, I found my own instinctive Conservatism embodied in Margaret Thatcher. She had a firmness of belief in herself and her country that brooked no argument. She was, quite simply, the greatest Prime Minister of my lifetime.
David Cameron is a very different sort of leader. His style could, indeed, be hardly less like that of Mrs Thatcher. In substance, however, he has shown that he has his own considerable strengths.
In 2010, Cameron inherited from the woeful Gordon Brown the worst set of economic circumstances that any incoming government had faced for several generations. The political arithmetic, too, was tricky, with a fickle Liberal Democrat Party holding the balance of power. Despite the odds, Cameron improved Britain’s economic position and standing in the world, creating the conditions that produced that first overall Conservative majority victory for over two decades.
Yes, it’s a work in progress; but Cameron has shown himself to be a good, solid leader to whom the party owes a considerable debt. I can’t think of any one of his contemporaries who would have done as well. It’s just that on the question of Britain’s membership of the EU, I disagree with him profoundly. And that is why, as a Conservative, I will be opposing him.
This is not to say that I think any the less of David Cameron as a man or as a leader of our party. He has his views on the EU, I have mine; on this issue we are irreconcilable. However, I very much hope that my fellow Tories will understand that sometimes rifts do develop within parties which, though apparently insuperable, can be healed; and when the referendum is over, whatever the outcome, that healing process must start, because the country needs a united Conservative Party.
And one final thought for Tim Montgomerie: despite Margaret Thatcher’s vows “to fight European integration”, she never did give us a referendum. However history judges David Cameron, he will be remembered as the prime minister who finally gave us our say on our future in Europe. And I thank him sincerely for it.