Trevor Fisher on the toppling of Tory Prime Ministers
Theresa May’s resignation brings to four the total of Tory Prime Ministers destroyed by the legacy of Enoch Powell. While Powell is remembered for the “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, his long term impact has been to create Brexit and bring down Ted Heath, John Major, David Cameron and now Theresa May. If the historians can ever focus on the History of Brexit, Brexiteers have developed the ability to destroy Tory Premiers and Tory Governments. Powell laid down that the cause was more important than the Party – and Remainers should take the lesson to heart.
Lesson 1 – Ted Heath
The story starts with Enoch Powell’s opposition to Ted Heath’s Bill to take the UK into the EEC in 1972. Powell voted against in every one of the 104 divisions. He would have resigned over the Act but in 1972 Tony Benn started his campaign to force a referendum on leaving the EEC – there has never been a referendum on joining, only on leaving – and Powell supported this. The Tory Party did not, but Powell took the position that the cause was more important than the party and refused to be a Tory candidate in the first 1973 election, and advocated anti-Europeans vote for Labour. He was approached by the Ulster Unionists to be a candidate in the second election of 1973 after Heath had lost his majority and Powell agreed.
Powell’s campaign helped Labour win a slight majority and he effectively ended Ted Heath’s political career. He became Unionist MP for Down on 10th October 1974, and though he was opposed by a Democratic Unionist in 1983, he survived till 1987 and retired from politics when losing to the pro-EU Social Democratic Labour Party. His role in establishing Brexit was then largely forgotten during the Thatcher years, but re-emerged when John Major became Prime Minister, though Powell was in retirement and played no active role.
Lesson 2 – John Major
Major won the first election after Thatcher went in 1992 with a landslide in votes – but with a majority of only 21 he soon hit problems. Criticism within the Tory Party of his signing the Maastricht Treaty was intense. On 22nd July 1993 Tory rebels voted against his signing the treaty, thus accepting Powell’s position that the cause was more important than the party. Major won a second vote declaring it a confidence issue, but later that day on ITN Major described the rebels as ‘bastards’, not realising his microphone was switched on and a tape made of his words. The row caused him grief and in July 1995 he quit as Tory leader, becoming the only Prime Minister to resign in office and be re-elected with Party support. He lost all authority however and the Labour landslide of 1997 put the Tories out of power till 2010.
Lesson 3 – David Cameron
Cameron was as committed a European as Major, and wanted to appeal to the centre ground, but had to include a referendum in the 2015 manifesto because, wrote his cousin in the Oldie, new MPs felt “the need to talk the language of euro-scepticism to get selected. By contrast the believers in the European Ideal had lost their voices, and by the time the referendum came along it was too late to recover them”. Cameron and George Osborne tried to fight using the negative strategy of Project Fear; but though they were right about the dire consequences, the core of the Tory Party (those who had not gone to UKIP) wanted out whatever the consequences. Like Powell, they believe the nation is sacrosanct even if it does nothing for them.
Powell once said “I would sooner receive injustice in the Queen’s court than justice in a foreign court. I hold that man or woman to be a scoundrel who goes abroad to a foreign court to have the judgements of the Queen’s courts overturned”. This is the true voice of Brexit, and it has just claimed its fourth victim.
Lesson 4 – Theresa May
It is too early to write the book on how May was destroyed by the European Research Group, a minority within the Parliamentary Conservative Party. The re-emergence of Nigel Farage was merely the last stage of a process of refusing to be rational over the future which started in the 1970s. But there is no doubt that from where ever he is now observing the political scene, Enoch Powell has a smile on his face. And he may be toasting the future with the Devil, as the Devil Takes Care of his Own. To the victor, the spoils.