Hard as it is to believe, Parliament has sailed through even rougher waters than these
My colleague Sir Nicholas Soames tweeted this week: “I don’t think in my 35 years as an MP that I have ever known such a truly unpleasant and deeply uncertain time in the House”. Although not as long serving as Sir Nicholas – a mere 28 years for me – I respectfully beg to differ. We both lived through the long days and nights of the debates over the Maastricht Treaty and, as I recall, they were far more unpleasant.
I don’t think in my 35 years as an MP that I have ever known such a truly unpleasant and deeply uncertain time in the House #soverydifficulttoseeawayaheadsorrytowhingebutitstrue
— Nicholas Soames (@NSoames) July 16, 2018
The late great Julian Critchley, MP and columnist, once said – and I paraphrase – that there is little worse than being stuck in a hot voting lobby with the whole Parliamentary party sweating and in an ill temper. On Monday night we had seven such votes in succession, with over 300 colleagues crammed in the narrow division lobbies as the temperature soared above 30 degrees. We were there again last night. But despite the discomfort – and the disagreements – spirits remain high.
In 1992, however, I arrived in the Commons and into a divided party. The wound from the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher was still gaping. The 152 MPs who voted against her were loathed by the 204 who still supported her. The sense of betrayal was rife. The vote of confidence which ended the Thatcher era reflected a battle between the conviction politicians and the pragmatists. And so it was with Maastricht.
Unlike today where only finance legislation carries on through the night, there were no such restrictions in the Maastricht era. For over a year between May 1992 and July 1993, the Commons voted numerous times often into the early hours and the battle lines became ever deeper. Maastricht became payback time for those who had knifed Mrs Thatcher in the back.
“The vote of confidence which ended the Thatcher era reflected a battle between the conviction politicians and the pragmatists. And so it was with Maastricht”
Before the Maastricht legislation began, I signed an Early Day Motion. This has all the influence of a petition and no power as it is not voted on. The Motion suggested that, in light of Denmark delaying ratifying Maastricht, we should hold fire too.
A big hefty whip ordered me to remove my name and, when I refused, he pushed me so I fell back against a bookcase in the Division Lobby in the middle of a vote and started screaming at me: “You little w*****, you’re finished in the Party!” This was witnessed by at least 50 startled MPs and John Major who happened to be walking through at the time. Other MPs were not treated so gently. One was dragged bodily out of a toilet where he had been hiding while another was lifted up by the throat and shouted at until he cried. I should add that no lasting damage was done. He is now regarded as a party grandee.
In the tea room and dining rooms, things were not much better. Abuse was hurled with a venom I have not seen since. The poisonous atmosphere was fuelled by drink and tiredness from ever more frequent late night votes. Whole groups of MPs refused to speak to others. Only the vote of confidence initiated by Major himself put a temporary end to the bickering.
At a hastily called meeting of the 1922 Committee, its Chairman Sir Marcus Fox addressed a packed meeting of 300 MPs. He announced that the Prime Minister would be standing down – he paused dramatically at that point to gauge the reaction – from the leadership of the Party though not as PM and he would seek re-election as Leader.
Or as someone else said: “Put Up or Shut Up”. John Redwood did put up and won 89 votes to John Major’s 218, but the bitterness remained until Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. Between 1992 and 1997, eight Conservative MPs died in office for different reasons. But the pressure of that Parliament will have played a part.
“One MP was dragged bodily out of a toilet where he had been hiding while another was lifted up by the throat and shouted at until he cried”
Is it the same now? Not really. There is no long lingering feud as there was with the Thatcherites and those who wanted her gone. On the whole, colleagues are polite and friendly in the dining rooms, tea room and the popular Commons Terrace. Views are strongly held on both side of the Brexit argument, but they are ones borne of conviction not loathing. Tempers do rise in the Chamber, but that is a reflection of a strong democracy. And, unlike Maastricht, the Prime Minister and the whips have to contend with no overall majority.
While it may be “a deeply uncertain time in the House”, I do not believe it is half as “unpleasant” as it was before.
Michael Fabricant is Conservative MP for Lichfield