Boris, Bastards and Brexit – a brief history of the Tories and Europe

4 Mar 2016


Boris v Dave is just the latest chapter in a long-running saga


Boris Johnson’s recent announcement that he would be campaigning for a “leave” vote in the upcoming EU referendum has seen the Westminster Bubble gripped with excitement over the last few weeks. The spectre of a single-party government split down the middle on a major national issue, with not just backbenchers campaigning on either side, but ministers and senior party figureheads too, is an extremely rare phenomenon. What makes it more extraordinary is the likelihood that the London Mayor may well turn out to be David Cameron’s successor as both Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. Fans of fantasy elections will no doubt be salivating over the prospect of a present party leader and PM going toe-to-toe with a likely future party leader and PM.


Splits in Conservative ranks over Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe are not a recent development, however. Tally up every Tory leader since Ted Heath took the UK into the then EEC (European Economic Community) in 1972 and you will probably find a 50:50 split over British membership of the contemporary European Union. Heath, a passionate believer in the need for European unity following his experiences during war service, would undoubtedly have joined Cameron, John Major and William Hague in calling for a “remain” vote in June. But (notwithstanding recent wild speculation), his successor Margaret Thatcher had by the end of her life almost certainly decided she was for leaving. Add her to Michael Howard and Iain Duncan-Smith, assume Johnson is destined to replace Cameron, and you have a tie between the eight leaders since ’72 - four for staying in, four for getting out.


Whilst scepticism existed within the Tory Party from the very earliest discussions about joining European institutions, it was initially the French President and ageing war hero Charles de Gaulle who kept Britain out, to the immense frustration of Harold Macmillan in the early sixties. But by the time of Britain’s entry in the seventies, there was an emerging group of disgruntled Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers on the old imperialist right. The closest thing they ever had to a figurehead was Heath’s early nemesis Enoch Powell. Powell is best remembered for his “rivers of blood” speech on immigration which got him sacked from the Shadow Cabinet, but he later infamously called on voters to back Labour in the February 1974 Election, believing Heath to have given away national sovereignty, while reneging on a promise to consult the electorate first.


Also worthy of mention: Dimbleby's hair 


That 1975 referendum on continued membership of the EEC came about because of far deeper divisions over Europe in the governing Labour Party. New Tory leader Margaret Thatcher memorably donned a colourful jumper with various European nations’ flags on it whilst campaigning for an “In” vote. But Thatcher’s gradually increasing hostility towards European integration by the end of her premiership arguably caused the depth of the split within Tory ranks today. Part of the reason Thatcher’s Cabinet forced her to resign as PM in 1990 was her refusal to let Britain join the new European Exchange Rate for currencies. Her famous “Bruges speech” in 1988 and her criticisms of European Commission President Jacques Delors in a Commons statement the following year have now become rallying cries for Tory Eurosceptics.


Loyalty to Thatcher among Tory backbenchers, many of whom always believed she had been unfairly betrayed by her party, played its part in the significant parliamentary rebellions over the Maastricht Treaty in the early nineties. John Major’s government became so ground down by the people he referred to as “those bastards” that he challenged them to either “back me or sack me” in a leadership election. He may have beaten John Redwood on the first ballot, but the in-fighting continued right up until the landslide defeat of 1997, and beyond. William Hague disastrously attempted to put a campaign to “save the pound” at the heart of the 2001 Election, and his successor Iain Duncan-Smith appeared to owe his election as leader almost entirely to Eurosceptics’ dislike of his opponent Ken Clarke.



The great irony of David Cameron’s decade as Tory leader is that he had originally campaigned for the Tory leadership on a ticket of modernisation which included a belief that his party needed to “stop banging on about Europe”. Seven years of continued Europe-banging later, with UKIP rising in the polls, Cameron was left with no choice but to announce a renegotiation and the in-out referendum that now lies before us. And, cynical calculation or not, Johnson’s decision to campaign against him in the referendum is an all-too obvious sign of the fundamental divisions over Europe that continue to plague the Tory party after decades of infighting. Remain or Leave, whoever ends up as leader after the referendum will have an unenviable job on their hands to reunite the party, and may even find that the issue still remains unsettled. In which case, they will be thanking their lucky stars for Jeremy Corbyn.         

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