Euroscepticism is on the rise in the Conservative party, not in decline, meaning this will not be Cameron's much sought after Clause IV moment.
Various coalition–friendly commmentators posited over the weekend that the parliamentary vote today on whether to hold a referendum on EU membership could be the prime minister’s Clause IV moment – a reference to Tony Blair’s 1995 dumping of Labour’s constitutional commitment to common ownership, thereby showing that he was willing to put centrist pragmatism over ideology.
The theory goes that since Cameron will take the side of the country over party, he will appear as a national rather than sectarian leader and be stregnthened. However, there are at least five reasons why this cannot possibly be the Tory leader’s Clause IV moment.
1) History was on Blair’s side. Cameron’s opponents believe it is on theirs.
Blair was not the first Labour leader who wanted to amend the constitution. Hugh Gaitskell had attempted to do so after the ’59 general election, and this was at the high tide of the belief in big government. The history of the previous half-century, from the USA to the USSR, had been one of the expanding state, and World War II had shown what government, steered by enlightened public servants, could do. If Clause IV was under attack then, it shows how weak it indeed was.
It is hard to overstate how the fall of the USSR only four years before Blair’s assailing of Clause IV, while welcomed by the democratic left, had removed intellectual ballast for the case for a big state. Francis Fukuyama had declared the ‘End of History’ and Thatcher and Reagan had rewritten the rules of democratic politics. Those standing by Clause IV were engaging in a rearguard action.
In contrast, as John Rentoul pointed out in a column arguing that this was indeed Cameron’s Clause IV moment, there is a case to be made that “the tide is turning” on pro-European attitudes even on the liberal left, following the Eurozone crisis and the perceived damage caused by free movement of labour.
Indeed, Conservative Eurosceptics have thier own tale to tell. The legend goes that perfidous Europhiles in Tory government in the Autumn of 1990 committed the double treachery of taking the UK into the European Exchnage Rate Mechanism and betraying Margaret Thatcher. It was Black Wednesday and the withdrawal from the ERM in 1992 that destroyed the Conservative party’s credibility and led to 13 years in the wilderness.
The further the Tories can get from Europe, the better. From MacMillan and Heath to Thatcher, Hague and IDS, they can argue that the general drift of Conservative politics is to become more Eurosceptic.
2) The Conservative rebels are a readymade powerbase for a future leadership challenger.
Although Blair lost a close vote at the 1994 Conference on Clause IV, the left was clearly a busted flush in Labour by 1995. Tony Benn and Eric Heffer only managed to secure around 10 per cent of the vote in the leadership and deputy leadership contests of 1988 respectively.
Arguably the left had even failed to put forward a candidate for the leadership for the contests of 1992 (Smith versus Gould) and 1994 (Blair versus Beckett versus Prescott). Going into the Clause IV vote, there was no ‘pro-Clause IV’ faction that a future leader of the Labour party could hope to use as a base.
By contrast, if around 100 Conservative MPs vote for a referendum, any challenger will have a readymade shortlist of possible supporters, and will have a credible historical narrative to argue why they are the future (see above). It only takes 15 per cent of the parliamentary Conservative party to trigger a vote of no confidence in the leader – or 47 MPs.
3) Labour were hungry for power. Conservatives are fustrated by office.
By 1995, not only had Labour spent 16 years in opposition: It had been almost 30 years since the party had secured a decisive general election victory. In that time, the party’s cultural and political touchstones had been decimated: heavy industry, unions, council housing, the nationalised sector. It is hard to imagine how desperate the party was for power.
By contrast, the Tory right are asking themselves whether this as good as it gets. Many Conservatives consider the only notable achievements so far to have been schools reform and the welfare agenda, although the latter may now be running into some difficulty. The NHS reforms have been botched, the Human Rights Act is here to stay and hopes of serious deficit reduction are receding, never mind cutting down the size of the state.
If this is the best Cameron can offer, why not go on the warpath?
4) The Tories have a credible-ish challenger on thier fringes
Eurosceptic parties have shown time and again the ability to drain votes from the Conservatives. In 1997, the Referendum party cost the Conservative party six seats, while in the 2009 European elections UKIP took more than 16 per cent of the vote. By the time Blair took on Clause IV in 1995, the hard left had had two general election opportunities and three European election opportunities to take seats from Kinnock’s moderating Labour Party, and had failed to do so.
Unlike the Labour left of the mid-1990s, the Tory rebels can argue that their party is facing an electoral penalty in not being Eurosecptic enough, and have some data to back it up. As long as they can marshall that evidence, they are not going to go away, unlike the pro-Clause IV faction of the Labour Party.
5) The Eurosceptics have money
The Labour left has never been awash with money, and so are comparitively easy for the Labour leadership to defeat. Yet there is a hardcore of very wealthy donors willing to keep the Tory Eurosecptic drive alive. Only last week the Tory peer Simon Wolfson offered a £250,000 prize for anyone who could develop a proposal to break up the Euro. UKIP donors like Stuart Wheeler and Lord Pearson may be willing to consider supporting a leader of Tory euroscepticism.
What made Blair’s Clause IV victory such a striking one was its decisive nature. Once the battle was won, there was no question of it being reversed, cementing his position simultaneously as master of his party and above it. For the five reasons listed above, this may only be the beggining of Cameron’s Euro nightmare, not its end. Blair’s Clause IV moment boosted his stature. This vote may be the start of a slow loss of authority from the Prime Minister.
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• Farage should check his own funds before accusing others of being in it for the money – Alex Hern, October 24th 2011
• Tories may care deeply about Europe, but no one else does – Daniel Elton, October 21st 2011
• While the Tories squabble over EU membership what’s the future for the euro? – Ben Fox, October 21st 2011
• The euro lurches towards the abyss – but does the Left have a Plan B? – Ann Pettifor, September 14th 2011
• Britain: Euroconfused not Eurosceptic – Joe Litobarski, March 17th 2011