Spectre of Thatcher shows challenge facing PM as he seeks to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership terms
Over the Christmas break William Hague dusted off a sacred text that has served as the lodestar for British Eurosceptics over the last quarter of a century: Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988.
The foreign secretary thought that in preparation for David Cameron’s most important speech on Europe later this month, it would be wise to remind himself how Thatcher memorably set herself against a “European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
As officials and ministers chewed over Thatcher’s speech they reached a rather startling conclusion. Were Cameron to deliver such a “pinko and pro-European” speech, in the words of one source, at least 25 anti-EU Conservative MPs would walk out of the party.
Eurosceptics often forget that Thatcher balanced her warnings of the dangers of a European super-state with a staunch defence of Britain’s place at the heart of the EU. “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European community,” she said. “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the community.”
The spectre of Thatcher shows the challenge facing Cameron, which goes way beyond his speech on Europe, expected to be delivered in the Netherlands. The Tory right are increasingly fearless and willing to speak out against the prime minister, as Liam Fox did on gay marriage on Thursday.
Cameron brushed off these objections at a meeting of Tory MPs this week on the grounds that the controversy would be long forgotten by the next election when gay marriage is firmly rooted in statute. He knew he could say this because the measure will pass with the help of the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
On Europe, however, the prime minister shows no such confidence, for three key reasons. First, the Tories will be largely on their own on Europe as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats warn that he is jeopardising Britain’s relationship within the EU. Second, Cameron is not the master of events on Europe, as the US and Germany demonstrated this week when senior figures raised doubts over his plans to hold a referendum on repatriating powers to Britain.
The final difference between the right’s approach on Europe and on social issues is the one that gives the prime minister such a headache and explains why he has delayed his speech so many times that it is fast becoming known as the “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech. It is that a large body of Tory MPs are so fervently Eurosceptic that their bottom line is Cameron must recast Britain’s relationship with the EU as solely a trading one – an impossible demand.
Lord Powell of Bayswater, Thatcher’s former foreign affairs private secretary who wrote the Bruges speech, highlighted this when he told the Guardian last month that Cameron had to handle a “tidal wave in the Tory party”. He said: “This is a new phenomenon and obviously makes it much more difficult in management terms for David Cameron to handle the debate and the issues.”
The prime minister calculates that for all the angry noises emanating from Berlin and elsewhere, he will succeed in renegotiating Britain’s EU membership terms because Germany will decide in the end that it needs Britain to remain on board to act as a counterweight to France. Cameron believes this because Angela Merkel brought him in from the cold – after punishing him for his decision to withdraw the Tories from the main centre-right grouping in the European parliament – the moment he became prime minister.
He told colleagues at the time: “I will be prime minister of the UK and Merkel will talk to me.” This calculation turned out to be entirely correct, but Merkel’s patience is not finite, as she showed in 2011 when she tabled the eurozone fiscal compact treaty outside the EU after Cameron wielded a veto.
Perhaps Thatcher has the answer. Let the EU “establish a genuinely free market”, she said in Bruges. But then she concluded by praising the “far-sighted men” who founded the EEC. That would be a bridge too far for Cameron.