Sunday, November 20, 2011
There were merry guffaws when former British prime minister John Major incautiously referred to three cabinet members as 'bastards'.This was in 1993, when European economic and monetary union was nearing the completion of its first stage. Right-wing Conservative MPs were then in rebellion over the Maastricht Treaty, which ratified the European Union. The weakness and division of the parliamentary party was obvious. With a majority of only 18 MPs, 22 backbenchers voted against the government.Party whips were unable to contain the revolt with their usual mix of threats and rewards, because the rebels were confident that Major's leadership would not last long and that it would fall to them to save the Conservative Party. In that, they had the blessing of former leader Margaret Thatcher. Though the right reclaimed the leadership after 1997, they could not win an election. It fell to David Cameron, standing as a socially liberal 'One Nation' Conservative, to take the Tories out of the hard right ghetto.Fast-forward to 2011, and Cameron's prospects look bleak. The backbench rebellion that took place in October was not over an outstanding Treaty issue. Its source was a parliamentary motion for a referendum over membership of the European Union, pushed by a number of right-wing MPs. These MPs must have known there was no prospect, even if a motion was carried, of Britain being withdrawn from the EU. The Tories' business allies would be the first to scream blue murder if this were on the cards. They can only have intended to hurt their leadership.