Political journalists are sometimes accused of stretching a point when they try to argue that history is repeating itself. But the plight of David Cameron does have uncanny similarities with the fate of John Major almost twenty years ago.
Then as now the politics of the Conservative Party were being driven by the Tory Euro-sceptics’ demand for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
Back in the 1990s, during the long haul to the general election of 1997 – and the Conservatives’ eventual wipe out – a political maverick was taunting the Prime Minister.
John Major’s bête noire was the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith who was funding the Referendum Party and paying for a splurge of posters and newspaper advertisements which promoted withdrawal from a federal Europe and called for Britain to return to a common trading market.
Two decades later the sceptics’ flag bearer is not an overbearing grandee but a larger-than-life Nigel Farrage, the bloke next door, only too happy to share a pint and explain why the United Kingdom should free itself from the clutches of the Brussels bureaucracy.
More importantly, UKIP – which back then was in its political infancy – is now a far deadlier threat than Goldsmith’s cheque book. Having been endowed with political stardust, Farrage has the ability, at least for the moment, to mobilise the floating voter, that Holy Grail for every party strategist.
It’s no wonder that Euro-sceptic Tory MPs with vulnerable parliamentary majorities have again become so agitated... and so vocal.
They too have their celebrity darling Nadine Dorries who commands the airwaves as provocatively as Teresa Gorman did under Major when she was the sceptics’ pin-up.
But nothing is more corrosive of a government’s authority than a perpetual media circus, especially when the Prime Minister of the day is on the defensive and when each concession, instead of being the last, only eggs on the tormentors and heralds yet another headline-grabbing confrontation.
The line John Major was trying to hold was that the Conservatives’ should fight the 1997 election keeping their options open on possible British membership of a single currency; it was in the national interest, he said, to wait until the facts were known.
Cameron is arguing a comparable case today that until the Euro zone crisis is over – and he’s had a chance to negotiate a new arrangement with the EU – then Britain is in no position to hold the in-out referendum which he’s promised.
And of course that depends on the Conservatives’ winning the next election and no longer being thwarted by their pro-European coalition partners the Liberal Democrats.
Cameron’s latest surprise move to appease the sceptics – publication of a draft bill to enact legislation for a referendum before the end of 2017 – has only served to embolden his opponents.
A hundred and fourteen Tory MPs voted on Wednesday to regret the absence of a referendum bill in the Queen’s Speech – an even higher turnout than their previous revolt.
And so it goes on. Having topped the ballot for private members’ bill, the sceptic Tory MP James Wharton has picked up the baton. Cameron, like Major before him, is insisting this concession is definitely the last...but the diehard objective is still to get a referendum far sooner than 2017.
As Cameron’s beleaguered predecessor found to his cost whatever was offered was never enough. Those seeking withdrawal just piled on the pressure...and continue to do so.
Perhaps the most chilling flashback for Cameron is open defiance from within the cabinet. Both the education secretary Michael Gove and the defence secretary Philip Hammond have declared that if a referendum was held now, they’d vote to leave.
How many others might there be in the cabinet ready to question if not undermine Cameron’s strategy of first negotiating. John Major certainly had his suspicions.
This July it’ll be the 20th anniversary of Major’s anguished 1993 defeat by rebel Tory MPs opposed to the Maastricht Treaty.
During a break in a series of television interviews Major chatted away – he thought in private – about the possibility that he might have to demand the resignation of the three Cabinet ministers he suspected of stirring up dissent.
Surreptitiously I’d been listening in and my shorthand note accelerated when the Prime Minister posed a sensational question: “Would you like three more of the bastards out there?”
I knew instantly that what I’d heard was political dynamite. But the off-the-record aside had been made after an ITN interview and I was told by my BBC editor that it couldn’t be broadcast.
But once a reporter always a reporter and yes the following day I did read out that unforgettable line to the political correspondent of a Sunday newspaper... and then the story was out.
Not surprisingly I was for the high jump that Monday morning and very nearly lost my job. I was told in no uncertain terms I’d become excitable and untrustworthy – I suppose a bit of worrying epitaph for a journalist but I hope I haven’t yet lost the trust of the listener.
Illustrations City AM 17,5,2913; Sun 29.4.2013; Sun 15.5.2013.