The Tories on Europe - 1990s nostalgia?

John Major and David Cameron Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Is David Cameron facing the same challenges on Europe as John Major?

In the glory days of the mid-1990s, when I first worked as political reporter for The Times newspaper, we were blessed with a large broadsheet page that we had to fill each day with political and parliamentary news.

Much of my day was spent in the chamber of the House of Commons, following debates and questions, nipping out occasionally to file stories over the phone to the copytakers. And my over-riding memory from that time is how, night after night, we would stand in the press gallery at 10pm watching to see how Eurosceptic Tory MPs would try to defeat their government again.

This was the era of the cabinet bastards and the Maastricht rebels, the dying days of John Major's regime as his majority slowly depleted year after year. Eurosceptic and pro-European factions roamed the land. Close study was needed of what the Conservative Way Forward and the Tory Reform Group were up to. Even the Bow Group occasionally made it onto the front page. They organised against each other, gathering names for letters to send to the newspapers, corralling competing businessmen and women to take up their cause. MPs like Bill Cash and Iain Duncan Smith were in their Eurosceptic pomp. Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine led the pro-Europeans into battle.

Crucial differences

You can probably see where I am going on this. I have been overwhelmed these last weeks by an acute sense of nostalgia as old arguments have been dusted off and reapplied to the current debate about Europe.

Last week Bill Cash joined John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin to launch a paper arguing that the benefits of the single market are overstated. Mssrs Clarke and Heseltine have given interviews to the broadsheets, talking of the importance of Europe to the British economy. The Fresh Start group of Tory MPs has published a long list of powers they want repatriated back to the UK. A new pro-European grouping called the Centre of British Influence Through Europe has been established. It is all incredibly familiar.

And yet there are, at least for now, crucial differences between today's debate and the Conservative divisions over Europe in the mid-1990s:

1. The internal Tory debate is less hostile and more nuanced. Most divisions are within the Eurosceptic family, between those MPs who want an in/out referendum and would be happy to leave the EU and those MPs who want to change Britain's relationship with the EU but do not want to leave. A majority of Conservative MPs would probably accept the description of Eurosceptic; ten years ago it was more of a minority sport.

2. The pro-European camp is much smaller than it used to be, but it is not quite so moribund as some would have us believe. For many years, when asked what became of the Tory pro-Europeans, MPs would point at Ken Clarke and say: "He's over there" (copyright Monty Python's Life of Brian). But a group of Tory MPs - including several former cabinet ministers - have circulated a letter warning the prime minister that talk of renegotiation and referendums was putting the single market at risk. For the record, that group comprised Laura Sandys, Margot James, Stephen Dorrell, Ben Gummer, Ben Wallace, Richard Ottaway, Bob Walter, Robert Buckland, Neil Carmichael, Caroline Spelman, Nicholas Soames, Peter Luff, Jane Ellison, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and Kris Hopkins.

3. There is no legislation around which division can form. In the 1990s, MPs could pick over the bones of the Maastricht Bill. In subsequent years, there were the treaties of Nice and Amsterdam. For now, until there is any legislation to set up a referendum or ratify a new treaty, the debate is one for pamphlets and policy papers, not detailed scrutiny and votes on the floor of the House of Commons.

So on Europe, David Cameron faces very different circumstances to the last Conservative prime minister. John Major led a party that was divided in cabinet, parliament and the country. Many of his MPs were so fired up they placed principle ahead of party. Mr Cameron, for all his travails, has a much easier wicket.

But, remember this. Despite all the turmoil around him, despite a declining majority, Mr Major went to the European Union and negotiated the British opt-out from the euro, a substantial and perhaps under-appreciated achievement that has had a huge impact on Britain in subsequent years. Perhaps it is against this benchmark that Mr Cameron's speech may ultimately be judged.