On this site near the start of the year, Richard Ritchie described four Commons debates, all about Europe. The first took place in 1950 on the Schumann Plan; the last in 1971 on the Common Market.
“Parliament and Parties have always been divided on this issue,” Ritchie wrote. “‘Sovereignty’ was always the key concern, despite arguments over its meaning.” But it is significant that in his passage on the Schumann debate, he notes that “it was during this debate that Edward Heath made his maiden speech, urging the Labour Government to ‘go into the Schuman Plan to develop Europe and to coordinate it in the way suggested.'”
From the era of Harold Macmillan to that of David Cameron, the Conservatives were the more pro-European of the two parties, and it was Heath himself who took Britain into the Common Market in 1972.
Margaret Thatcher began her premiership by winning the only national election in which a party has won more than 50 per cent of the vote in Great Britain – the European elections of 1979, which saw Madron Seligman, one of Heath’s closest friends, win in West Sussex by a margin of 95,484 votes.
We all know about the Bruges speech towards the end of her premiership…but also about her then government’s support for the Single European Act nearer the middle of it. Then came John Major and the Maastricht Treaty.
It is a cliche to say that the European issue destroyed first Thatcher’s premiership and then Major’s, but like many cliches there is a lot of truth in it. It went on to wreck a third Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, on the rock of the 2016 EU referendum. You will point out that in the time between Heath’s premiership and Cameron’s the Party itself had become broadly Eurosceptic.
True, but as recently as 2016 more Tory MPs backed Remain than Leave. (Our final Remain estimate was 185 to Leave’s 129.) And only six of Cameron’s Cabinet members broke ranks to campaign for Vote Leave.
One has now to pinch oneself to remember that as recently as last July Theresa May was Prime Minister, Philip Hammond Chancellor of the Exchequer and David Gauke Lord Chancellor. Or that Rory Stewart was cutting a dash with his leadership election campaign during the same month. All voted for her deal but had backed Remain.
Less than six months later, Boris Johnson suddenly ended the long Conservative civil war in a single day – last Thursday. At a stroke, he triumphed where Cameron, Major and – gulp – even Thatcher failed.
The internal opposition to him has collapsed. Stewart has left the Commons and is now an independent. Gauke stood as one in his Hertfordshire South-West seat and lost. Hammond didn’t even contest the election. Oliver Letwin, briefly “the real Prime Minister“, has gone. The twice-resigned Amber Rudd is out, too. So is the EU’s most resourceful champion in the Commons, John Bercow. May, displaying exemplary loyalty, soldiers on.
The Europe issue prevented Ken Clarke, the most formidable Conservative politician of his generation, from leading the Tories. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his handling of it did. At any rate, he’s departed too.
As for Dominic Grieve, well, as the other Dominic – Cummings – almost put it, “we’ve seen what he is right about” (not much, if stopping Brexit is the measure). Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen left to join a movement the name of which few can now remember. Like Nick Boles, another refusenik, they are ex-MPs today.
None, in the last resort, were forced out. As evidence, we cite Greg Clark and Steve Brine – also members of the dissenting group of 21, who none the less worked their way back and have now rejoined the body of the kirk.
It is a Parliamentary Party whose commitment to Johnson’s Leave plan is sealed by more than the commitment of a mass of new pro-Brexit MPs – now roughly a third of the whole. It was forged in the 2015 election manifesto commitment to a referendum; honed by its 2017 successor, which went on to repeat that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, and completed by the manifesto about which our columnist Rachel Wolf writes on this site today.
John Major, Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten: all look like fading survivors from another era, holograms beamed up only in the strange world of BBC interviews. They gambled on a second referendum and lost.
One day, time and fashion and tide will change. Then, it could well be we Brexiteers who are all washed up with nowhere to go. Perhaps the future of the Union will now tear at the Conservatives as membership of the EU has done (though please note: it is Labour, not the Tories, who have ended up being sunk in an election by Europe.)
But for the moment the question is unambiguously settled, with Johnson leading a voluntary party, MPs and a Cabinet all united in support for Brexit.
Barring an asteriod hitting it – and perhaps even then – the UK will leave the EU next year. No more Benn Bills; no more Bercow; no more Cabinet revolts, with senior members defying the Prime Minister by abstaining. Certainly, there will now be a tussle over transition, alignment, and the 2020 deadline. But those are the knots of resistance and final stands after the main fight itself has been decided, and settled.
Heath’s opposite was not so much Thatcher, herself largely pro-European in government, as Enoch Powell – though even he only swung decisively and outspokenly against the European project in the late 1960s;
For better or worse, last Thursday marked Powell’s final triumph over Heath on Europe (if not on Northern Ireland or immigration or even now market economics). But the Prime Minister could justifiably find himself thinking less of Powell today than of Shakespeare, about whom a Johnson book has been planned.
The bard’s 107th sonnet is believed by some to refer to a coming disaster that never happens – perhaps invasion by the Spanish Armada, perhaps not.
Shakespeare’s politics and person are ambiguous, but “with the drops of this most balmy time”, public events and his private passions meet. And so he addresses the young man of the poems: “And thou in this shalt find thy monument, / When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent”. Last Thursday’s election is Johnson’s monument. He will always be remembered for it, and its settling of the Tory EU question, even if he later crashes and burns.