30 years ago today, John Major’s government was trapped in a pincer movement orchestrated by Conservative rebels and the Labour Party’s frontbench. David Ward explores how the Prime Minister decided to table a motion of confidence in his own government, the part that John Smith played in this dramatic episode in parliamentary history, and how it revealed the near ungovernable state of the Conservative Party.
‘Backed against the wall and forced to threaten his own party with electoral suicide’ – that was the brutal verdict of the Leader of the Opposition, John Smith, thirty years ago about the embattled Conservative Prime Minister John Major.1
In July 1993, after months of parliamentary drama over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, the Government was trapped in a pincer movement orchestrated by Tory rebels and Labour’s frontbench. A ‘ticking time bomb’ Opposition amendment on the Social Chapter exploded, resulting in the Conservatives’ worst parliamentary defeat of the twentieth century.2 The next day, Major was forced to table a motion of confidence in his own government, threating a general election which the Conservatives were certain to lose. The Prime Minister’s gamble paid off and the vote was won, but it exposed the near ungovernable state of the Tory Party.
Just 15 months earlier, on 9 April 1992, Major had defeated Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party at the polls, giving the Conservatives an opportunity to move beyond the bitterness unleashed by the defenestration of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Central to the task of transcending these Tory travails was the Maastricht Treaty – the product of an intergovernmental conference that aimed to evolve the European Community into the European Union (EU). Negotiated in December 1991, Major described the treaty as a personal triumph, having secured opt-outs from the Single Currency and the Social Chapter. Boasting he had won ‘game set and match for Britain’, Major hoped the bespoke deals secured in Maastricht would calm Conservative divisions over Europe.
These hopes were dashed all too quickly. Major’s problem was that the 1992 election only gave him a majority of eighteen in the House of Commons. This left him vulnerable to a hard core of backbench Eurosceptics including Bill Cash, Iain Duncan-Smith, Christopher Gill, Teresa Gorman, Tony Marlow, Michael Spicer, and Teddy Taylor. Backed by former Party Treasurer Alistair McAlpine and the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, the rebels were determined to exploit every opportunity to block the passage of the European Communities Amendment Bill – the legislation required to enable ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.
Soon after the election, the first and second readings of the Bill passed relatively smoothly with scant warning of the troubles to come. Predictably, Labour opposed the opt-out on the Social Chapter, while the rebels bided their time, hoping for a more promising moment of disruption. This came shortly afterwards (on 2 June 1992) when a narrow ‘No’ vote in a referendum called by the Danish Government blocked progress with the treaty.3 As ratification was required by all Member States, ‘entry into force’ could not happen unless the Danes changed their mind or succeeded in renegotiating aspects of the treaty which would be subject to a second referendum.4
Inevitably, the Danish vote energized the rebels who sensed a powerful opportunity to defeat the Treaty. Boosting their eurosceptic fervor was the newly ennobled Margaret Thatcher who actively lobbied backbenchers to oppose the Bill. To Major’s dismay, she turned ‘a difficult task for our whips into an almost impossible one’. Given the uncertainty caused by the Danish referendum, Major’s government decided to delay the Committee Stage of the Bill until the intentions of the Danish Government were known. It would not be until November that year in a ‘paving motion’ ahead of the Committee Stage that Parliament would return to the Maastricht legislation but in the interval another European crisis shredded the credibility of Major’s government.
On 16 September 1992, the Pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and the central plank of the Conservatives’ economic policy was humiliatingly destroyed. For John Major, it was a double disaster as he not only was the Prime Minister on ‘Black Wednesday’, but had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1990 when the decision to join the ERM was taken. In a single day, billions in reserves were spent and interest rates repeatedly raised in a futile attempt to save the Pound. This debacle wrecked the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence for a generation as it was also argued that the Pound had entered the ERM at too high an exchange rate in 1990. The Government had failed to support a general realignment against the D-Mark which could have diffused the speculative pressures weakening a number of European currencies, with John Smith labelling John Major as the ‘devalued prime minister of a devalued government’.
Labour immediately gained a commanding lead in public opinion polls which were sustained through to the 1997 General Election. Equally significantly, the ERM debacle also fundamentally altered the internal dynamics of the Conservative Party. The ‘euroscepticism’ of the rebels became supercharged, along with their efforts to sink the Maastricht Treaty regardless of the consequences for Major’s government. Leading the assault was the former Tory Cabinet Minister Norman Tebbit who blatantly challenged the Prime Minister’s policy at a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton. To achieve their aims, however, the Tory rebels would have to engage in a highly unusual degree of cooperation with Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.
Ironically, John Smith’s position on the Maastricht Treaty was not that far apart from John Major’s. He was a committed European who had famously rebelled against the Labour whip on the vote to join the European Community in 1971. Like Major, Smith was cautious about the possibility of the Pound being replaced by the Euro and, therefore, did not oppose the opt-out from the Single Currency. His core disagreement with Major was over the Social Chapter.
Smith strongly welcomed the idea of a framework of social and employment rights to be applied across the Single Market. He shared the vision of European Commission President, Jaques Delors, that the quid pro quo of deeper economic integration should be a stronger ‘social Europe’. This fitted comfortably with Smith’s strong belief that social justice and economic prosperity went hand in hand, with his overall objective being to support the Maastricht Treaty but to fight as hard and as long as possible to defeat the opt-out from the Social Chapter.5 In this, he was ably assisted by George Roberston as Labour’s Shadow European Minister.
Like Major, Smith also had a problem with anti-Maastricht rebels. In fact, the number of Labour MPs against the treaty was much larger than that of the Conservatives. A leading opponent was Bryan Gould, Smith’s challenger in the 1992 Labour leadership contest, who had resigned from the Shadow Cabinet to have the freedom to criticize the Party’s European policy. He joined a nearly 70-strong group of Eurosceptics loosely aligned with the Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee that originated at the time of the 1975 referendum on Europe held by Harold Wilson’s government. Together with Gould, Labour rebels included Jeremy Corbyn, Denzil Davies, Peter Hain, Austin Mitchell, Peter Shore, and Nigel Spearing. Some like Peter Hain were not anti-European per se but were concerned about the deflationary risk of the architecture of the Single Currency and its proposed independent central bank.
Smith also faced pressure from the Party’s pro-European wing. Gerald Kaufmann, Peter Mandelson, Giles Radice, and others argued that the treaty ‘was the best available’ and supported the ‘rapid completion of the ratification process’. However, Smith decided to do the opposite, launching what George Robertson described as a ‘guerilla campaign of huge proportions’ to harry the Government but not lose the Treaty.
This commenced with the ‘paving motion’ promised by Major after the initial Danish referendum. Smith decided to vote against the government motion and table an amendment designed to attract Tory rebels. Given Smith’s personal pro-Europeanism, he knew he risked the charge of opportunism but was also convinced that it was the duty of the Opposition to oppose. The Government defeated Labour’s motion by six votes but 26 Tories rebelled. On the main motion, the Government won by just three votes. Thus began – in the words of the Opposition Chief Whip Derek Foster – ‘the opening salvo in what proved to be ten months of acute embarrassment of the Tories’.
Labour used an array of Parliamentary devices to delay progress with the Bill. They blocked the Government’s efforts to speed up the Bill and during the Committee stage tabled a series of probing amendments to explore contentious issues but not force them to a vote. In March 1993, Labour won an amendment by twenty-two votes on the relatively obscure issue of the composition of the European Community Committee of the Regions. This first defeat for Major delighted Labour MPs and emboldened the Tory rebels. It also made it necessary for the Bill to have a report stage further dragging out the legislative process. ‘A constant source of amazement’ to George Robertson was the willing and formal co-operation of the Tory rebels. As John Major later acerbically remarked, ‘our rebels delighted in the thought they were using Labour. They were wrong. Labour was using them’.
Smith’s strategy was to maximize the opportunities for Tory rebellion, while patiently working to keep Labour divisions to a minimum. In February, he took the highly unusual step of allowing a series of debates on the Treaty in the Parliamentary Labour Party before the Shadow Cabinet agreed the whip, which allowed the Party’s Maastricht opponents to set out their case. All the votes went Smith’s way, but his inclusive style earned respect from among even the most persistent rebels. As Peter Hain remarked, ‘We’ve lost, but at least we’ve been listened to’.
Smith also had to reassure key European allies that his parliamentary tactics were not a reckless game that could block the Treaty. In May, he was invited to the Élysée Palace by French President Francois Mitterrand who was worried that the combination of Tory rebels and Labour’s support for the Social Chapter could block ratification. Mitterrand wanted reassurances that the Treaty would not be lost. Smith reassured Mitterrand that he would fight the battle over the Social Chapter for as long as possible but would not risking ratification of the Treaty as a whole. Smith also couldn’t resist reminding the French President that he had taken a much bigger risk in holding a referendum that was very nearly lost in September 1992.
Labour’s ‘ticking time bomb’ amendment (numbered 27) on the Social Chapter was tabled in February. The amendment was skillfully crafted not to block the passage of the Bill into law but to require the government to vote on the Social Chapter opt-out before final ratification. John Major recognised that this was ‘a real bullseye’ as it resulted in the ‘Tory rebels becoming allies in Labour’s socialist campaign to undo our opt-out’. Initially not selected by the Speaker during the Bill’s committee stage, strong complaints from Labour’s frontbench reversed the decision ensuring that it would come back for a vote after the Bill’s Third Reading in May. This set the stage for a climactic conclusion to the Maastricht debates, scheduled for 22 July 1993.
There were two votes that day: the first on the opposition amendment and the second on the main government motion. Major could not lose either of these as this would block final ratification of the treaty. A last-minute offer was made to the Tory rebels not to rejoin the ERM but this cut no ice as it was not a policy under active consideration. In the debate, Major defended his Maastricht deal as an example where ‘we can win the arguments at the European table’ and he claimed that it would be ‘cynical and unscrupulous’ to vote for the Labour amendment, dismissing his rebels and the Opposition as ‘an alliance of different parties with different interests, voting for the same amendment for different purposes’. The Prime Minister concluded that he was determined to ‘ratify the Treaty I signed and to oppose last-ditch efforts to delay or distort it’.6
Despite giving what was seen as an effective and robust defence, Major knew he faced an impossible task. His party’s rebels were defiantly ignoring their whips and even succeeded in smuggling a seriously ill MP, Bill Walker, into the Lobby to vote against the Government. The result on Labour’s amendment was a tie of 317 to 317, with the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, following parliamentary tradition to ‘maintain the status quo’ and casting her deciding vote with the Government. While it was later discovered that there had been a miscount and the Government had defeated the Labour amendment by a single vote, it was clear that they were in deep trouble on the main motion. This was duly lost by eight votes and Major gave notice that a Confidence Motion would be tabled the following morning.
The next day, facing a Government on ‘suicide watch’, Smith was on fine form. He mockingly turned Major’s sporting metaphor (‘game, set and match for Britain’) into a joke about the Prime Minister’s favourite game, Cricket:
“With no hint of modesty, and clearly no inkling—not even a clue—of the problems to come, the Prime Minister advertised his visit to Maastricht as game, set and match. Nineteen months later, after endless foot faults, double faults and mishits, he was struggling with a tie-break. Today, like some petulant tennis prima donna, he is threatening to take his racquet away. Perhaps, after his next negotiating triumph in Europe, the Prime Minister would be better advised to use cricketing metaphor—but, then again, perhaps not. After all, he was clean bowled yesterday and he has been forced to follow on today”.7
However, Smith’s debating skills could not overcome the self-annihilating threat of Major’s ‘nuclear option’.8 The Conservatives’ eurosceptics had finally run out of road and were forced to fall into line rather than risk the election of a Labour government with a clear mandate to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, including the Social Chapter. The Government survived with a majority of thirty-eight votes and the Treaty became law, ending what John Major described as ‘the longest white knuckle ride in recent British politics’.
For John Smith and his frontbench, the battle over Maastricht was an enormous success. They had delivered a masterclass in the use of parliamentary procedure to delay and disrupt the Government’s legislative programme. According to George Roberston, ‘John knew the damage he was inflicting because he had been in government. We were draining away the lifeblood from the Tories’. That this happened when Labour’s own divisions over Maastricht were numerically larger than the Tories’ is a powerful testament to John Smith’s patient and inclusive leadership style. While his death in May 1994 prevented him ever achieving the premiership, Smith’s achievements as Leader of the Opposition provided a superb platform for Tony Blair to lead the Labour Party to a landslide victory in May 1997.
In contrast, Major had secured a pyrrhic victory. He had succeeded only by threatening to sign what he called a ‘death warrant’ for his own government. The ERM crisis in September 1992 had wrecked the Tory’s reputation for economic competence and the battle over Maastricht had weakened its ability to govern. A few months earlier, following his dismissal as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont warned that the Conservatives gave ‘the impression of being in office but not in power’. The relentless rebel machinations over Maastricht reinforced the image of impotence that Lamont had so memorably applied to Major’s government.
On the evening of the Confidence Motion, an exhausted Major complained to ITV’s John Brunson about ‘the bastards’ on his own side. This unguarded remark revealed the depth of the Conservative Party’s divisions over Europe but, with hindsight, it also marks a turning point in modern British political history. Never again would a Conservative leader choose to directly confront the Party’s growing band of Eurosceptics. Major’s struggles proved to be a desperate last effort to encourage his Party to engage, pragmatically and positively, with the EU. All Major’s successors have followed a path of accommodation and appeasement, leading to David Cameron’s commitment to the Brexit referendum; a reckless decision that exported Tory divisions over Europe to the British people resulting in the narrow vote to leave – not an outcome that either John Major or John Smith would have predicted thirty years ago.
The lesson for pro-Europeans from all sides in British politics is that if Eurosceptics are given an inch, they will take a mile.
1. Social Policy Protocol (Confidence Motion), HC Deb, 23 July 1993, Vol.229/Col.633.
2. For an exhaustive scholarly account of this legislative battle, see David Baker, Andrew Gamble and Steve Ludlam, ‘The Parliamentary Siege of Maastricht, 1993: Conservative Divisions and British Ratification’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol.47/No. 1 (January 1994), pp.37-60.
3. France and Ireland also held referendums on the Maastricht Treaty. The Irish referendum was held on 18 June 1992 and passed with 69.1 per cent voting ‘Yes’, while the French referendum was held on 20 September and was narrowly approved by 51 per cent.
4. The second Danish referendum was held on 18 May 1993 and was approved by 56.7 per cent.
5. For an excellent account of John Smith’s approach to Maastricht, see Chapter 20 (‘A Fighting Opposition’) in Mark Stuart, John Smith: A Life (Politico’s, 2005).
6. Treaty of Maastricht (Social Protocol), HC Deb, 22 July 1993, Vol.299/Col.519-528.
7. Social Policy Protocol (Confidence Motion), HC Deb, 23 July 1993, Vol.229/Col.633.
8. Labour had enjoyed a comfortable, uninterrupted lead in opinion polls after the ERM crisis. At the time of the Confidence Motion, Mori published a poll in The Sunday Times with the Conservatives on 27 per cent, the Liberals on 25 per cent, and Labour on 44 per cent (22 to 26 July 1993).
David Ward served as John Smith’s Head of Policy from July 1992 to May 1994.