One Conservative prime minister took us into Europe, another started to turn her party against it, and now a third is leading the retreat. Michael McManus asks what past big beasts of the Tory jungle would make of election 2017by Michael McManus / May 4, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read more: Edward Heath—alone at the top
During my time running Edward Heath’s office, he and I had just two conversations of substance on the subject of European integration.
The first took place very shortly after I entered his employ. I told him I thought John Major had been very sensible to negotiate opt-outs from both the single currency and the social protocol of the Maastricht Treaty. It was a brief and unpleasant exchange. “Sometimes people just have to be told what to do,” he snapped, when I told him I thought the social protocol was misguidedly anti-competitive and unnecessarily intrusive. The second occasion came when he summarily sacked and replaced me because I had been selected as a parliamentary candidate and had publicly stated my strong personal opposition to the UK ever joining the euro. I also said the entire experiment would end in disaster: an even greater heresy.
After the vote to leave the European Union on 23rd June last year, my old friend Gyles Brandreth, a writer and former Tory MP, said to me how fortunate it was that Heath had not lived to see the day—because it would surely have killed him, just a fortnight shy of his century. When I recounted this comment at a meeting at Westminster, the former MEP Tom Spencer disagreed: Heath would have rallied and fought against Brexit until his dying breath.
If, by some miracle of longevity, Heath were still amongst us today, contemplating the choice the nation will face on 8th June, what conclusion might he reach? Would anyone care, when so much water has passed under the bridge in his party, and elsewhere, since he was PM?
In the 1975 referendum, 85 per cent of Conservative voters supported our membership of the then European Economic Community. Heath, who had been evicted from the party leadership by Thatcher earlier that same year and still enjoyed a greater following than she did in the country, was instrumental in persuading them to endorse the decision he had driven single-mindedly through Parliament just four years earlier. In 2016, only 42 per cent of Conservative voters supported David Cameron’s contention that we should remain in the EU—neatly half the previous proportion and quite something, if you consider the millions of natural Tories who had run into the arms of…