One of the striking features of the European debate is the strange silence of the Conservative parliamentary party – or at least the strange silence of the younger generation of Conservative MPs.
More than 200 Tories, nearly two thirds of the parliamentary party, were first elected in 2010 and 2015. Yet only a handful have publicly criticised David Cameron’s minimalist approach to his so-called renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union.
Take, for instance, the most recent Tory rebellion over Europe – the one that forced the Government to back down from its plans to use the full force of the Whitehall propaganda machine once the referendum is called. Of the 37 Conservative rebels, only two were part of the 2015 new intake of 74 Tories. A further six came from the ranks of the 147 Tories first elected in 2010.
Conventional wisdom has it that the present Conservative parliamentary party is the most Eurosceptic ever. But this is hardly borne out by the facts and by observation of the participants in the biggest national decision for 40 years.
Almost all of the MPs pressing Cameron to take a hard line in the negotiations or openly advocating that Britain quit the EU in the referendum are members of the old guard. Former Cabinet ministers Owen Paterson, John Redwood and Liam Fox regularly speak out, as do former Maastricht rebels Bernard Jenkin and Bill Cash. But the new boys and girls are keeping their own counsel. With the honourable exception of Steve Baker (2010), co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain (CfB), a group allied with the Vote Leave campaign, the new generation of Tories, typically people in the thirties and forties, has nothing to say.
It is widely believed at Westminster that more than 100 Tory MPs have privately expressed sympathy with CfB. But so far they have said nothing publicly, even though Cameron is apparently making little progress in his efforts to persuade European leaders to accept his modest reforms. According to yesterday’s papers, he is now backing down on his demand for a four-year moratorium on EU immigrants being granted access to in-work benefits and social housing.
Nearly 25 years ago, during the rebellion over the integrationist Maastricht treaty, 25 Tories routinely opposed John Major’s government and as many as 50 more sporadically made common cause with the hard-line rebels. Significantly, quite a few of the sceptics were members of the Class of 92, a generation of Tories who had grown up under Margaret Thatcher’s radical, reforming governments. Many are gone now but the survivors include Iain Duncan Smith, John Whittingdale (both now Cabinet ministers), Liam Fox, Jenkin and Sir Alan Duncan.
Superficially, it is as if nothing has changed. Even if CfB is right in suggesting it has the tacit support of 120 Tory MPs, that is only one third of the parliamentary party, not much of an advance on the 25 per cent of Tories who rocked John Major’s boat.
Why should this the case, given that the electorate has moved decisively against the EU with a narrow majority now backing Brexit, according to the opinion polls?
For a start, today’s generation of Tory MPs are more careerist than their predecessors. More than ever, their focus is getting a lowly job in the Department of Bog Brushes and climbing the greasy pole. This makes them far more susceptible to the threats and blandishments of the whips and by all accounts a heavy operation is under way right now not to disrupt Cameron’s Grand Tour of Europe’s capitals. Increasingly, young Tories resemble graduate trainees in a City law firm, working all hours to curry favour with the boss. We hear little of the Fresh Start Group of Tory MPs, which claimed a membership of 100 in 2014. Its founders, Andrea Leadsom and George Eustice, are, of course, junior members of the Government and thereby gagged from saying anything out of place for fear of the sack.
It also seems Dave’s A-list and other schemes to manipulate candidate selection and sideline local parties have worked. The Prime Minister said he wanted a generation of modern, compassionate Conservatives. Maybe so. They are also proving compliant and conformist, ideal middle manager material. It is striking how few publish articles of any great note in the national press or, indeed, say or do anything remotely memorable or original.
Does any of this matter? Is it possible that the country will vote to leave the EU even though the leaderships of the two main parties (Tory and Labour) are plainly committed to staying in, Tory and Labour parliamentary foot-soldiers incline to the status quo, and only Ukip and Nigel Farage can be counted upon to join the revolution? And who knows, a few members of the Cabinet might yet jump ship and join the Vote Leave side when battle is fully joined, possibly in the spring of next year.
Perhaps. There is always the Norwegian precedent. In 1994, for the second time, Norway voted 52:48 against joining the EU in defiance of the Prime Minister, the leaderships of just about all the political parties, the media and big business. But then, does modern Britain have the Viking spirit?