To judge from the press comment from the continent, most of the European Union establishment are deeply concerned that David Cameron should have been returned to office with a majority. Typically, Der Spiegel calls it “bad news for Europe”.
That underlines my view that Europe is likely to be one of the two great issues to make or break the Conservative government. The other is, of course, the determination of the SNP to break the union, although perversely to remain as a minor province of the proposed European republic envisaged by the unelected authorities in Brussels.
It was the European issue that brought down Margaret Thatcher. Her famous cry of protest at the dispatch box – “No. No. No.” – was not that of an overemotional woman repeating a word for greater effect. It was a “no” to each of Jacques Delors’s proposals that the government of the Euro-state should be the European commission, its democratic organ the European parliament and its senate the council of ministers.
For her heresy she was brought down.
Now Cameron’s mantra is that Britain should remain a member of a “reformed” EU. To that end, he says that he will renegotiate the terms of British membership and then campaign in his 2017 referendum to remain part of the foetal European republic. In short, this would be a plea for devolution.
The are hazards along the way. A majority of 12 in the Commons is very different to the 50-plus he has enjoyed until now. No longer can what was agreed by the PM, the chancellor and their deputies in “the Quad” be imposed on the cabinet and the Commons. It will be more like John Major’s task of suppressing the Maastricht rebels, or Jim Callaghan’s in managing a fissile Labour party.
The absence of the Lib Dems, who have traditionally taken the Euro-patriot’s line that the EU is “their country, right or wrong”, may ease his problems on the floor of the Commons, but the SNP will take any opportunity to create procedural mayhem to frustrate attempts to legislate for “English votes for English laws”.
Time will not be on Cameron’s side. The legislation for the referendum should be in place in less than two years. It will raise the awkward question of the franchise north and south of the border, to be exploited by Scottish nationalists and Europhiles alike.
As the prime minister selects his ministers, the key appointments may be those of the chief whip and the leader of the House of Lords, for I can see this becoming the most querulous and difficult parliament to manage since Jim Callaghan was brought down in 1979.
Lord Norman Tebbit is a British conservative politician and former member of parliament for Chingford.