On Thursday, no one in Parliament was talking about anything except the mess in Greece and the impending collapse of the euro. A couple of Tory members were telling me why it was inevitable that the European currency would break up—and soon—when word spread that their colleague Mark Hoban, a minister in the Treasury, had made a terrible gaffe. Responding to a hostile question about whether Britain would ever join the common European currency, Hoban had replied: “I don’t think there is any intention for us to join the euro at the time when it is breaking up.” In short, the country’s ruling party finds itself in a position where it is not supposed to say things that all of its members know.
At almost any other moment of the past quarter-century, Britain’s Tories would be reaping an electoral bonanza from the European Union’s troubles. Since Margaret Thatcher’s time they have been the most Euroskeptic party in any major European country, and now events are leading Britons to see things their way. The EU’s leaders, particularly Nicolas Sarkozy, looked antidemocratic last week when they hammered Greek president George Papandreou’s proposal to consult his citizens over a major international obligation. But Europe has not shown its best face to Britain for a long time. A poll taken by the socialist Fabian Society a year ago found that more than twice as many U.K. citizens saw EU membership as a “bad thing” than saw it as a “good thing.” In recent weeks, Sarkozy has been campaigning for a Europe-wide financial transaction tax that would pay for development aid to poor countries—and since London dominates the banking sector of Europe, at least 60 percent of that tax would be collected in Britain.
But the Tories have a problem. For the first time since the premiership of Edward Heath in the early 1970s, a Conservative-led government is pursuing Europe-friendly policies. Rather than leading Britain into war against the euro, Tory backbenchers have had to wage a rebellion against their party leader, Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron has long been an ideological mystery. Like Barack Obama, he comes out of the red-hot partisan core of his party, but campaigned as a centrist who would reach out to political opponents. Whereas Obama rushed back to his partisan allies after being elected, Cameron has loitered in the center, reaching out to his party’s foes. At the Conservative party conference this fall he called for gay marriage. He has attacked banks for their greed. He has an energy policy that focuses on climate change rather than energy prices. And he has long promised to stop his party from—in his words—“banging on about Europe.” This is a promise that he has kept.
Partly out of necessity. Cameron’s Tories fared worse than expected in last year’s elections, forcing them into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems, as they are called, are the most Europhile party in English politics. What is more, when Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war created an opening for an antiwar party on the left, the Lib Dems filled it. One Tory described Labour to me as the party of his adversaries and the Lib Dems as the party of his enemies. Their leader, Nick Clegg, who has a Dutch mother and a Spanish wife, urged last week that Britain forge closer ties with Europe, arguing that Britain has America’s ear only when it can show it is listened to by Europe. This does not mean he sees the United States as unworthy of emulation: Clegg has lately been attacked in the newspapers over a £36 million loan to a steel company in his constituency that would create 50 [sic] jobs.
Whether Cameron’s tepidity on Europe has to do with conviction or the realities of coalition politics, it is costing him in public opinion. Fifty-five percent of voters say he is out of touch. He has a particular problem among women, only 13 percent of whom see his party as close to their concerns; 79 percent of the public believe the Tories are close to the concerns of the rich. And his party, naturally, is beginning to grow restless. That is how Cameron came, two weeks ago, to be the target of the largest intraparty rebellion against the EU in British history.
In the early 1990s, when Tory prime minister John Major brought his party behind the Maastricht Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, there were a few dozen Euroskeptic “Maastricht rebels” who took their case to the country and did great damage to Major’s standing. Major’s intimates called them “the bastards.” Some things don’t change—the Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth reported recently that those around Cameron refer to today’s Euroskeptics as “30 to 40 sh—s.”
Recent events, however, have shown that there are more than 30 or 40. During the last Labour government, agitators for direct democracy were able to win agreement to an innovation called the “e-petition.” Any proposition that could get 100,000 signatures online would be debated on the floor of the House of Commons. It didn’t work out as planned. E-petitions were gathered for a reinstatement of capital punishment (which some polls show a majority of Britons favor). Another popular e-petition called for removing Gordon Brown. It wasn’t long before Gordon Brown removed the e-petition.
This was a useful club with which to beat Labour for its arrogance. During the campaign, the Tories were almost Ross Perot-like in their embrace of direct democracy. The result has been a number of very lively and open debates launched by the new House backbench business committee. Some weeks ago the Euroskeptic Tory David Nuttall called for a referendum on whether to stay in Europe. Bill Cash, one of the original Maastricht rebels and a savvy Euroskeptic, altered the motion slightly to ask whether Britain would like to renegotiate the terms of its EU membership. (Cash’s preference is for a free-trade zone.) At that point it became a dangerous question, one with the possibility of winning a majority in the party. Cameron decided to enforce a “three-line whip”—a tool for party discipline that means any minister or minister’s secretary who votes against the measure must resign. The House of Commons resembles a Latin American army, in that more than 100 members out of a total 650 hold such “leadership” positions. So a three-line whip can kill almost any bill. Of course, a three-line whip has little to do with direct democracy.
Despite the whip, when the votes were tallied, 81 Tories had defied the leadership and 111 members of all parties had called for a renegotiation. Euroskeptic Tory Mark Reckless says that this is a sign that more than half of the party, if the whip were taken off, would vote to pull out of the union. “I’m not certain about that,” says Cash. “But there are two-thirds that would vote to renegotiate.”
For Tim Montgomerie, who edits the blog Conservative Home and has a keen sense of rank-and-file Tory thinking, several factors could be at play. One is that big programs based on abstract questions have lately failed or fallen badly into disrepute—from the Iraq war to stimulus programs to the fight against climate change to (now) the euro. Another is that Euroskeptics have found a way to talk about Europe without invoking abstract questions of sovereignty. But then, events in Europe are making questions of sovereignty look less and less abstract every day.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.