25 Apr 2013

Immigration archive: Conservative divisions (1994)

The Conservative party, past and present, has often seemed bitterly divided about European integration, the threat of open national borders and the free movement of people throughout the EU.

In February 1994, the government under then prime minister John Major was no exception, writes Ian Searcey.

Having succeeded the ousted Eurosceptic Margaret Thatcher as premier in 1990, Mr Major promised to keep Britain “at the very heart of Europe”, much to the dismay of certain sections of the Conservative party. Expected to lose the general election in April 1992, he pulled off a surprise victory, but only managed a slim majority of 21.

This left him at the mercy of backbenchers when it came to the Commons debate in July of 1993 to ratify the Maastrict treaty on the European Union that had been signed by member states the previous February.

Despite his negotiations over the social chapter, and having secured an opt-out from the single currency, the government lost the first vote, largely down to a group of Tory “Maastricht rebels”.

Mr Major called for a second vote the following day (23 July) and added spice by also making it a vote of confidence in his government. He won by 40 votes, but serious damage had been done to his authority, and Europe remained a major focal point for party dissent. (He would famously refer to three unnamed members of his cabinet as “b*******” in an ITN interview later that day.)

Residence test

This Gary Gibbon piece, from 4 February 1994, came as the government announced plans to introduce a residence test for foreigners claiming social security in the UK.

Despite Mr Major maintaining he would be taking a tough line with any indiscipline within the government ranks, Michael Portillo, the chief secretary to the Treasury, was recorded apparently disparaging the qualifications and business ethics of “other countries” during a speech for students (he apologised almost immediately for the way he phrased his concerns).

Viewers were reminded of a Peter Lilley conference speech in which the social services secretary put on a cod French accent to decry the society of “sumzing for nothing”.

For Europhiles and government opponents, both men seemed to represent an underlying xenophobia within the Conservative cabinet that was not being dealt with effectively by the prime minister and hindering progress in the European debate.

When John Major was defeated in the 1997 general election, Michael Portillo, now better known as a broadcaster, also lost his seat.