Margaret Thatcher’s fall began on 30 October 1990 when she blurted out to the House of Commons what she really thought about monetary union and the wishful proposal devised in the Treasury for a new European currency known as the “hard ecu”. In her prepared statement reporting on the European Community summit in Rome, she stuck to the script, duly pretending her government could persuade the rest of the EU to travel to a single currency via a parallel currency and that one day Britain might give up sterling for the hard ecu. But when the questions came, she lost patience. Monetary union was, she said, the “back door to a federal Europe” and her government “totally and utterly” rejected the prospect. As for the hard ecu, she continued, it was unlikely to be used very much.
Others at the top of her cabinet had concluded that the government should avoid making a premature decision on the strategic European problem posed by monetary union. But Thatcher had already made her mind up. Her certainty horrified those who had not, and, led by Geoffrey Howe, they began their manoeuvres to oust her.
But Thatcher’s rush to judgement on participating in monetary union has been vindicated. Contrary to the hopes of John Major and Kenneth Clarke, there would be no waiting to assess if the UK economy could adapt and the electorate acquiesce to protect UK influence in the European Community; and there would be no halfway house monetary union in which a common currency would circulate with national currencies. Parliament ultimately had to decide either to join the euro with the other European states, or to rest the UK’s membership on the single market and then defend that position with treaty opt-outs.
Thatcher’s successors as leaders of the Conservative Party have all failed to see with such clarity the external and domestic choices the EU has created for the UK and, with the exception of interim leader Michael Howard, paid the price for their floundering. John Major’s premiership was destroyed when his “wait-and-see” approach to monetary union was wrecked by Black Wednesday in 1992. William Hague wasted his time on a pretend battle to stop Britain joining the euro when Gordon Brown had ensured there was no risk of any such outcome. Iain Duncan Smith took refuge in the illusion that a Conservative government could, once the eastern European countries joined, turn the EU into “a partnership of sovereign states”, only to be successfully portrayed by Tony Blair as a man who wanted to end membership altogether.
David Cameron at least began from the premise that Thatcher’s victory, and Labour’s acceptance of it, had indeed liberated the party from obsessing about Europe. What he did not understand until it was too late was that the eurozone crisis would make it harder to defend the principle of non-discrimination within the single market on financial services. Neither did he predict the single market’s capacity, under the pressure of the same crisis, to generate rising immigration from European countries with high unemployment – a scenario Thatcher had foreseen in those fatal post-Rome remarks.
Once he did realise the eurozone crisis had created the imperative for the UK to make a strategic choice over Europe again, he also judged the decision could not be his government’s alone. Thatcher was too unpopular at the moment of her reckoning to trouble herself much about the electorate. But by 2016 there was no way of reconstructing EU membership with revamped safety buffers without asking voters if they would not rather be done with the whole thing.
Theresa May had to deal with the carnage when the referendum backfired for Cameron. She failed because she never clearly conceived the choice that had to be made between the UK leaving the EU and maintaining the present border between the UK and Ireland, especially when a withdrawal agreement relied on parliamentary consent. Like the misnamed opt-out Major pursued on monetary union, the backstop is a mechanism to delay choices. Theresa May might have hoped it would allow the other EU states the time to lose patience with Ireland. But to many fellow Conservatives it looked more like something that would give Remainer MPs and the Treasury time to ensure that Brexit becomes an incoherent economic, legal and constitutional mess.
Boris Johnson is Thatcher’s seventh successor as party leader, and he wants to make the kind of decisive choice she did. Since staying in the EU is not, he insists, an option, the UK will be leaving by 31 October. He has others’ indecisiveness on his side. Many of those in parliament who would like to stop Brexit appear incapable of using the only readily available means of doing it by voting to revoke Article 50. Instead they seem to hope the EU-27 will allow them to prevaricate further by agreeing another extension. But unless President Macron decides to help Johnson by vetoing an extension, Remainer MPs may be able to thwart Johnson by preventing exit by any means other than via a withdrawal agreement that they refuse to help pass. Johnson, unlike Thatcher, is supposed to be at the start of his leadership not the end. Leaving the EU cannot be allowed to cost him so much, otherwise there will have been no point to his lifelong ambition for political power.
Even if Johnson were to succeed and we leave by 31 October, he cannot in the years ahead be vindicated by events or a new bipartisan consensus. Johnson is right that a choice is again necessary. But unless the EU-27 moves, there are no shrewd or even prudent judgements left, only extraordinary risks that in all likelihood will destroy the reputation of whoever takes them.
Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University
This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation