I have seen various report claiming that the issue of European integration has been responsible for bringing down Conservative Prime Ministers from Edward Heath onwards – and at least one also suggesting it brought down Harold Macmillan. European integration has been a notably disruptive issue in British politics, indeed the faultline in British politics since the end of the Second World War, but to argue that it is the cause of the departure from No. 10 of Heath, Thatcher, Major, Cameron and May, not to mention Macmillan, is to overstate the case.
Harold Macmillan’s ministry was plagued by problems by 1963. The veto of Britain’s application to join the EEC was a blow to the Prime Minister, but there were other domestic events, not least the Profumo scandal, undermining his premiership. He was widely portrayed as out of touch. What triggered his resignation was illness. He believed his medical condition was worse that was actually the case and subsequently regretted submitting his resignation.
Heath was beset by problems by 1974, not least the reaction to his U-turns on the economy and industry, an energy crisis, and a major dispute with the National Union of Miners, leading him to call an early election in 1974 on the issue of ‘who governs?’ The loss of the election, followed by another in the October, set in train the pressure to resign and his being voted out of the leadership in 1975. Negotiating membership of the European Communities was held up as his crowning achievement. EC membership contributed to resentment on the part of Enoch Powell and like-minded MPs, but it was not the cause of Heath’s demise.
Margaret Thatcher caused tensions over the UK’s membership of the EC, especially following her 1988 Bruges speech, and it was her stance on further European integration two years later that triggered Geoffrey Howe’s resignation as Leader of the House of Commons, an event that led Michael Heseltine to challenge for the leadership. However, what really did for her as leader was her stance on the poll tax. That was the issue causing widespread unrest, indeed rioting, in the country and one that many MPs realised was electorally toxic. With the PM refusing to budge on the issue, it was necessary to find a leader who would rid them of this electoral millstone. As I wrote in my analysis in Britain at the Polls 1992, ‘Conservative MPs knew only too well that as long as she remained leader, the poll tax was going to stay. Either both stayed or both went’.
The government of John Major lost the 1997 general election in September 1992. ‘Black Wednesday’ saw Britain’s humiliating withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism and triggered a collapse in public confidence in the party’s handling of the nation’s economy from which it never recovered. Conservative MPs were badly and very publicly split in 1997 over European integration. The in-fighting may have contributed to the sheer scale of the defeat – more Conservative MPs lost their seats than held on to them – but was not the cause of it.
One is clearly on safer ground in arguing that the issue of European integration brought down David Cameron – a defeat of his own making, having committed himself to supporting an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – as well as Theresa May. Her speech last Wednesday at the 1922 Committee, indicating she would not stand in the way of someone else being elected to take the government to the next stage of negotiation, was the result of the failure to mobilise a majority for her deal. However, given that she is still Prime Minister, the only leader to go so far because of divisions over European integration is David Cameron.