Coffee House

Sir John Major on how to win an EU renegotiation

14 February 2013

John Major knows a thing or two about naughty Tory MPs and Europe. So David Cameron would do well to listen to his Chatham House speech today in which he advised the PM to give up on the ‘irreconcilables who are prepared to bring own any government or any Prime Minister in support of their opposition to the European Union’.

He made two particularly strong points:

1. The Prime Minister should start preparing for the negotiation now.

Major doesn’t want the UK to leave the European Union, and neither does Cameron. So the former Tory Prime Minister gave a detailed briefing on how Cameron can avoid this. A referendum would only prevent a gradual drift towards the exit if the renegotiation preceding it is successful, and to ensure success, the PM needs to get planning right away. He said:

‘We need to prepare our own proposals without delay, negotiate courteously and with understanding and the manner in which these negotiations are conducted is vital.’


Major’s argument that Cameron needs to engage with ‘each of our European partners’ in a constructive rather than aggressive fashion won’t be one that frightens the PM: he showed at last week’s EU Budget summit that he’s able to do this. There are, of course, various François Hollande-shaped flies in the ointment, but Cameron showed that he’s not at risk of isolating himself through a poor negotiating demeanour.

There is also political gain in Major’s suggestion that Cameron should appoint a lead negotiator who sits in the Cabinet, whether or not the Lib Dems agree. Major sounds pretty diplomatic on this, saying ‘on a matter of this national importance, the tail must not wag the dog’. But Cameron can also use any reluctance on the part of his Coalition partners to argue that the Lib Dems, by being reluctant to face the facts and prepare for negotiations, are sleepwalking Britain towards isolation in Europe.

2. Cameron can’t – and shouldn’t try to – win over all Tories.

One particularly good line in the speech was ‘rebellion is addictive, and some members may be getting a taste for it’. He can say that again: our analysis of the party after the EU Budget revolt showed a rather large hardcore of Conservative MPs who have rebelled in all three major revolts on a referendum, Lords reform and the EU budget. Major added:

‘I learned 20 years ago that the parliamentary party includes irreconcilables who are prepared to bring down any government or any prime minister in support of their opposition to the European Union.’

But who are these irreconcilables? There are some names that trip off the tongue very easily indeed. But not everyone on our hardcore list looks beyond rescue, and the same can be said for the web of rebellious MPs stretching across different issues. Perhaps the Prime Minister needs to put his international negotiating skills to good use with those members of his party who are behaving a little like François Hollande.

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  • Walter Ellis

    I confess, I have always had a soft spot for John Major, who was much maligned when in office and regularly underrated ever since. The former PM knows what he is talking about. And in this instance he is 100 per cent right. Britain cannot afford to leave the EU. I cannot fathom the thinking of those who say that they are “totally sick” of the cost of our membership. In reality, less than 1 per cent of our gross national income is paid to Brussels, a chunk of which comes back to us in the form of grants and benefits. France pays more – and while the French undoubtedly do well out of the CAP, they do not, unlike the Brits, get a £3bn a year rebate. Germany pays in nearly twice as much as the UK. The idea that Britain subsidises the EU and is bankrupting itself in the process is one of the big lies of the Faragistas. The truth is, Britain needs the EU, just as the EU needs Britain. Well done, Sir John!

  • Smithersjones2013

    This is the same John Major who became a figure of ridicule and a symbol for conservative incompetence as a result of his Europhilia.

    2. Cameron can’t – and shouldn’t try to – win over all Tories.

    This is the same John Major who managed to lose 4.5 million votes (almost one third of his support) throwing away the Thatcher legacy on Euromania.and leaving the Conservatives stranded in the political wastelands for a decade. I think his advice should be taken with a pinch of salt

    If Cameron managed to lose one third of his support then the Tories would be on the verge of becoming a minor party like the Libdems.

    • Radford_NG

      None of the Establishment has ever faced this 33% lose;which Cameron has only cut to a 25% lose of the historic support since 1945.

  • foxoles

    Advice from the man who rammed through Maastricht against his own back-benchers and took us into the disastrous ERM. What a cheek.

  • Olaf

    I’ve a spare ‘d’, you can have it for your first paragraph.

  • Chris lancashire

    Good advice from another decent man who also did a decent job in circumstances that were difficult – although not as difficult as those facing Cameron.

  • Vulture

    Taking advice from the most disastrous Premier since Heath – well at least until the advent of the following trio – is like asking Oscar Pistorius to go and see who’s making all that noise downstairs.

    John ‘Black Wednesday’ Major, like the Bourbons, has learned nothing from the disastrous failure of his European policy. John “Maastricht’ Major is still a paid up Eurolackey despite all that has happened since.

    The Tory party need him and his hopeless ilk like they need several more holes in the head. Talk about the ghost of Christmas past – isn’t there a dentist the poor old duffer can go and visit somewhere?

  • In2minds

    Advice from John Major,gosh! It’s enough to make you feel sorry for David
    Cameron. ButcombeMan has it right, too much on the MPs and not enough
    focus on the people. But then Major has never been in favour of
    referenda thus he’s a part time democrat. Sensible folk should ignore
    him, as before.

  • Boudicca_Icenii

    I’ve been saying for some time that the CONservative Party would only change policy on the EU when the Party Elite understand that they will NEVER AGAIN win a majority to govern the country if they don’t.
    It looks like they’re finally getting the message.
    Cameron would not have ‘offered’ a Referendum if he hadn’t been forced into it. Major wouldn’t have made this speech if the Party Grandees didn’t understand that UKIP members/voters aren’t going to be fooled by another Cameron pledge which was unbankable.
    Not ONE of those UKIP votes was wasted!

    • Makroon

      I assumed Major’s big speech was a pretty blatant job application to be Chief EU Negotiator. Of course, Blair, Hurd and Mandelson will also fancy their chances.

    • Radford_NG

      This is why some have been voting UKIP all-along:and before that for Jimmy Goldsmith in 1997.Unfortunately Labour alienated so many of their own supporters as to let the L/Ds in;but the Cons. have still alienated 25% of their own historic constituancy,a quarter of whom vote UKIP,the rest militantly staying at home [not out of apathy].

  • Curnonsky

    His message seems to be that Cameron’s real task is to defuse the issue rather than solve it, all for the sake of keeping power in the hands of the Conservative party. Or am I missing something?

    • Boudicca_Icenii

      His message seems to be that if Cameron doesn’t advance his plans to renegotiate with the EU, the Conservative Party will be wiped out in 2015 – possibly permanently.

    • ButcombeMan

      No, you are spot on. Cameron has tried to placate his party and, to an extent, neuter UKIP. He has done this because he had to. Oppossition was getting out of hand.

      Some people have been fooled by it.

      Cameron probably, does not, at heart, believe he will ever be in position to give a referendum.

      If Cameron does not crack on with it the Tories WILL be wiped out in 2015 and many Tory MPs will lose their seats-permanently.

      It will be many painful years before the Tories can ever form a government on their own, maybe never.

      Cameron is out of tune with most of the country. Away from London, the EU is hated by everyone. People from all parties now express scepticism. Labour has still to catch up.

  • Russell

    Cameron and Miliband/Clegg ignore the millions of people who are totally sick of the EU £billions per year cost, regulations, impact on our laws and immigration etc at their peril.
    The Conservatives (and LibDems) will see at the forthcoming Eastleigh election and the next MEP elections what the strength of feeling is with regard to the EU, and if they don’t want to be seriously damaged at the next general election, they better understand this fact.

    • dalai guevara

      Nonsense – every word, not one aspect troubles anyone who is not yet a pensioner.
      What matters is lack of opportunity, our apparent inability to apply the rule of law -whether with regard to corporate governance issues, blatant fraud committed by financial institutions or violations of the red top press, leading to a lack of international confidence in our abilities and a yet further lack of opportunity.

  • Daniel Maris

    It’s an election gimmick and Major is doing his best to make it sound like something other than a gimmick.

    There will never be an in-out referendum under Cameron.

  • ButcombeMan

    Too much concentration on what MPs think.

    Not enough on what one time Conservative voters and possible Conservative voters think.

    2014 and the hordes of Romanians & Bulgarians will see to that.

    Major seems to think the objections are the same ones he faced, they are not.

    All parties ignore the groundswell against the EU at their peril.

    The public will no longer be fooled.

    • Walter Ellis

      It’s all about immigration, isn’t it, Butcombe? Others may dress it up in other language (democratic deficit, shameful cost etc etc), but the bottom line is, Ukipsters want East Europeans kicked out of Britain.

      • ButcombeMan

        For you it may be, not for the majotity of ordinary voters.

        The issues are cumulative, unaudited accounts, contribution, , the size of that, immigration yes, fishing rights, the sheer madness of the Euro as a concept.

        The final straw is Ken Clarke talking about and almost willing, EU expansion and the Maghreb.

        We are dealing with irrational EU worship here, not common sense. It is madness.

        The ordinary member of the voting public, of whatever political stance, now knows that.

        Politicians ignore that at their peril.,

      • MirthaTidville

        Too true

  • telemachus

    This is an increasing irrelevance
    Clegg will never allow a Cabinet negotiator
    The Europeans know that Cameron finishes in 2015
    They will spin things out until a euro-reasonable party takes over

    • an ex-tory voter

      The only EU reasonable party is UKIP

      • telemachus

        Not from the perspective I was discussing

      • realfish

        I despair. To vote UKIP, to accept their narrow, shallow offering, their narrow shallow party is a slow walk towards Miliband, a Lab Lib coalition, more Europe and perpetual Marxism.
        Madness. Utter madness.

        • telemachus

          You articulate why I value Ukip so much

        • Vulture

          Get this fishy: the difference between the Cameron Conservatives and Labour is between committing suicide today and delaying it for a week.

          Personally, I’d rather just get it over with under the two Eds. With Cameron you get lied to and then you still have to die.

          • Daveyyy12

            So true..

            We have millions who contribute nothing costing us billions. Without money these fools will starve so red Ed will have to find money, billions of pounds. As the country is living on debt and any tax increases will be deflationary a Labour government will be just fine. You see Ed will discover there is no money.

            Rather get it over with. Never vote Tory, Lib-Dems or Labour. The sooner it goes pear shaped the better.

    • ButcombeMan

      The public are not interested in the Euro.

      There are three main things holding back Labour.

      Ed Balls as their Shadow Chancellor, their lack of a sensible sceptisism about the EU project. Their absence of a clear policy, on almost anything.

      Red Ed will have to conceed some sort of referendum/re-negotaition over Europe, it is just a question of time. The Romanian hordes will see to that.

      • telemachus

        Charismatic Ed is trusted on Europe
        He is non integration-alist yet will keep us commercially engaged

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