From the Conservative conference
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote George Orwell. And so it has been with the Conservatives and Europe. By reporting the story as another predictable Tory split on Europe, most of the media have missed the extraordinary historical shift that has taken place under David Cameron. Past Conservative divisions over the European Union pitched Europhiles against Eurosceptics; this one has pitched Eurosceptics against Europhobes.
The Conservatives’ pro-European wing, which once produced figures of the stature of Michael Heseltine and Ian Gilmour, has been well and truly vanquished. Ken Clarke remains a lone Europhile figure in the shadow cabinet, but he has been increasingly sidelined by the leadership.
Let us recall how extraordinary this state of affairs is. It was a Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who first applied for membership of the European Economic Community and another Conservative prime minister, Ted Heath, who eventually took Britain into the EEC.
Margaret Thatcher may now be lionised by Daniel Hannan et al, but she signed the Single European Act, and in her ferocious Bruges speech she still declared: “Our destiny is in Europe.” Even the beleaguered John Major prevailed over the “bastards” in his cabinet and passed the Maastricht Treaty into law.
Here in Manchester, the most popular stall in the central complex is that of the Tories’ sinister Eurosceptic alliance, the European Conservatives and Reformists. The disgraceful Michal Kaminski, head of this ragbag coalition, has been free to strut around the city without a hint of dissent from the party’s “liberal” wing. The debate over whether Cameron should hold an absurd retrospective referendum on the Lisbon Treaty obscures a simple fact: that never again will the Tory party provide a home for Europeans. The choice now open is between varieties of prejudice.