Theirs was a pyrrhic defeat. The 79 Tory MPs who on Monday defied their Prime Minister and voted for a referendum on Europe have nothing to show for their efforts.
They will have enjoyed the frisson of being part of a mini-rebellion, revelled in conspiratorial company, and basked in the plaudits received from constituents and constituency workers. But nothing of substance was secured. There will be no referendum. Their party and Prime Minister have been weakened, but Fortress Europe, though also assailed from within, remains unbreached. As Lord Ashcroft, a man whom I saw at last month’s Tory party conference describing himself as on "the conservative wing of the Conservative party", told ConservativeHome: "Monday’s display was damaging because it suggested to ordinary voters that the Conservatives are far away from them when it comes to priorities – the most important issues facing the country, and their families.
“The point is not whether they agree with us over Europe: the sceptical Tory view, articulated over many years by William Hague and others, is close to the centre of gravity in public opinion. The question is whether it matters to them as much as other things matter, and the fact is that it does not.”
I’m not complaining, mind. If Tory MPs want to try to level the political playing field by undermining a successful leader, portraying their party as completely out of touch with the nation’s concerns, and handing the press a great big stick to beat them with, it’s fine with me. The Labour party doesn’t have a monopoly on this stuff.
Watching Monday’s debate, I was gripped with nostalgia. As a junior researcher, I was standing in the central lobby of Parliament in 1993 when the Major Government lost the famous vote on the Maastricht bill. This was back in the days when Tory whips really knew how to whip. On the stairs leading to the chamber, one Conservative MP had another pinned to the wall with his arm in his throat. Four of Labour’s burliest northern MPs arranged themselves as bodyguards and marched one tremulous Tory rebel into the correct voting lobby, whilst loyalist MPs desperately tried to peel him away. I still have a distinct vision of a diminutive Gillian Shepherd poking her finger into the chest of one of her colleagues and inviting him to copulate with himself.
All this was before Tony Blair and New Labour. But at that moment I knew John Major would never win another general election. His party had become ungovernable. The “bastards”, the cranks, the single-issue obsessives were in control. Major was no longer a Prime Minister, but a prisoner.
Yet as I surfed reminiscence’s foam-flecked crests, another thought occurred to me. Less a thought, more a grudging admission. The bastards, cranks and single-issue obsessives had a point.
The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party have acted as the political equivalent of suicide bombers. As they themselves would concede, they have done nothing to disrupt the inexorable march of the grey-clad legions of Brussels. And they have caused untold damage within their own ranks. At the same time, we pro-Europeans have been relatively sensible and moderate, careful not to scare the electoral horses. But our dream was a “people’s Europe”. And were we to ask the people of Athens how that's working out for them, we would probably be disappointed by their response.
Our other dream was British entry to the single currency. I looked up a briefing given to the BBC by the pro-European camp back in 1997. The euro would, we argued, “end currency instability in the participating countries (by irrevocably fixing exchange rates) and reduce it outside them … An end to internal currency instability and a reduction of external currency instability would enable exporters to project future markets with greater certainty. This will unleash a greater potential for growth.”
The ideal was a union of sovereign-but-equal nation states. But this morning, Angela Merkel stands not just as Chancellor of Germany but de facto President of Europe. And you do not need to buy into apocalyptic visions of a Fourth Reich to realise equity of European power and sovereignty is a chimera.
Europe, as a political concept, is dying. The great irony is that the only people who can’t see it are the Eurosceptics themselves. It was their manic Europhobia and constant cries of “wolf” that ceded the debate, by default, to the pro-Europeans. And now it is that same mania that is keeping the fading embers of the great European debate alive.
The game is up. The single currency will stagger on, the ritualistic statements of unity will be issued. But the Grand Plan is being rolled up and placed quietly in the shelf. From Madrid to Paris, Bonn to Brussels, the penny, or rather the euro cent, has dropped. The only place where it has not are one or two committee rooms in Westminster.
But David Cameron’s euro fundamentalists will continue their campaign. The damage to their party and leader will be considerable. And, grateful for the distraction, we pro-Europeans will seize our opportunity, and slip quietly into the night.