With delicious timing, tomorrow’s House of Commons vote on Europe comes almost 20 years to the day since the Conservative whips were in deep panic about one of the key votes held on the Maastricht Bill. The ‘paving motion’ vote – the vote to re-start the Maastricht bill’s progress – was held on 4 November 1992, and as Douglas Hurd recorded in his diary on the eve of the vote: ‘no one in the know believes we will win at 10 tomorrow’.
Indeed, even as late as eight o’clock on the night of the vote, the Conservative Whips Office still believed that they would lose by one or two votes.
In the end, they won – but narrowly, and only with the support of the Liberal Democrats. There were two separate votes on the paving motion.
The first was on a Labour amendment; the second, and most important, was the paving motion itself, which inter alia noted that the Bill had received a majority of 244 at its Second Reading and thus invited ‘Her Majesty’s Government to proceed with the Bill’.
The first saw 23 Conservative MPs vote against the Government with around 10 abstaining. The Government won by 319 to 313, thanks to the support of all but one of the Liberal Democrats.
The second vote – on the main motion – saw the rebellion increase to 26 cross-votes, together with at least six abstentions. The Government’s majority was even narrower (319: 316), despite the continued support of the Liberal Democrats.
The irony was that this was an issue on which the Labour frontbench officially supported the Government. They welcomed the Maastricht Treaty, and would have signed it too. There was an overwhelming majority in the House for the treaty. Its ratification should have been simple and painless. Yet despite the Labour leader, John Smith, being avowedly pro-European, he was prepared to use almost any parliamentary device available to drag the process out, finding areas where his party could disagree with the Government, highlighting the Conservative divisions. It was not, he felt, the Opposition’s job to make life easy for the Government.
As a result, of the unholy alliance between the Labour frontbench and Conservative rebels, it took more than a year of parliamentary debate, marked by continuous backbench dissent on the part of Conservative MPs, before the Bill was passed. One Conservative MP described the victory over the Paving Motion as ‘like the Battle of the Somme… The Government has gained ten years but at a huge cost’.
Twenty years on, the battle is still being fought. Tomorrow’s rebellion is merely the latest in a string of rebellions over Europe. In a particularly rebellious parliamentary party, this is the most incendiary issue – during the first session of the Parliament, rebellions over Europe were, on average more than double the size of those on other issues, including the whopper two years ago over demands for a referendum. The nature of the divisions may have changed. The split of twenty years ago – between ‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘eurosceptics’ (the labels are crude, ugly, and contested, but necessary) are now over; the new battle lines for the Conservatives are between gradations of scepticism, between hard and soft sceptics. But its ferocity is undimmed.
Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart