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Return of the Maastricht b******s

IT was just like old times.

Wednesday's Tory back-bench rebellion over Britain's contribution to the European budget took me back 20 years to Maastricht, John Major and the eurosceptic tormentors that the former Tory PM called "the b******s". One of them, Teresa Gorman, the Conservative MP for Billericay, even wrote a book, entitled B******s, about her contribution to the great Maastricht war.

But now it seems the b******s are back. Last week, as Tory MPs inflicted a humiliating defeat on their own prime minister, there was that same sense of excitement in the airless corridors of the Palace of Westminster. Tory MPs with glistening foreheads rushing around collecting names for mischievous motions, intoxicated by rebellion. There's nothing like it. Backbench MPs live pretty dull lives: being told how to vote by the whips; keeping their thoughts to themselves in case they damage their careers; filing obediently through the lobbies. When a rebellion happens it is as if they wake up – they remember why they came to politics in the first place: to change things; to call spades spades; to make passionate declarations.

Mind you, to outsiders these declarations may seem to be expressed in the language of another planet. Tories fulminate about obscure issues such as the "Lisbon passerelle", which sounds like an opening gambit in grandmaster chess, but is actually a clause in the EU treaties that allows the European Council of Ministers to decide when to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting. Tory MPs call it the "gangplank clause" because it means the other states could force Britain to walk.

Last week's rebellion was ostensibly about the narrow issue of Britain's contribution to the EU budget, which has angered Tory MPs for as long as Britain has been paying it. We contribute about £9bn a year and get about £6bn back. But this is really a cipher for what the new eurosceptics call "repatriation".

Most Tories, as far as I can judge, now want out of the EU altogether, but they hope to achieve this incrementally by taking back powers one by one from Brussels. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is currently compiling a list of them. There are uncanny parallels here with the Scottish Government's call to repatriate to Holyrood powers such as The Crown Estate, broadcasting and corporation tax – but let's not go there.

Which powers are involved? Conservatives want to reject the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, repudiate Britain's commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights; and seek exemption from EU social and employment laws like the Social Chapter and the working-time directive.

They want to immunise Britain generally from the directives and regulations that come from Brussels on issues such as the environment, fisheries policy, and health and safety. Westminster has legislative power, but laws passed here have to be harmonised with euro statutes – at least in theory.

This was what gave rise to the euro myths about bent bananas and straight cucumbers. Some eurosceptics want to pass a sovereignty act that would assert that Britain is not bound to observe laws handed down from Brussels.

Nor do they believe Britain should be required any longer to subscribe to the mission statement of the Maastricht Treaty: "ever closer union". Tories believe, with some justification, that the European Union is using the sovereign debt crisis to turn itself into a united states of Europe, in which decisions on taxation and spending will increasingly be taken centrally and debts will be pooled across the 27 member states.

This would place immense power in the hands of the European Central Bank and, Tories believe, the Germans who dominate it. They are calling for a referendum on repatriation to be included in the next Tory election manifesto.

But since there is no mechanism for taking powers back from Brussels, repatriation is really a euphemism for withdrawal. So far, David Cameron has only agreed to a referendum if more powers are demanded by Brussels, but he is being driven hard by events. Twenty years ago, there were still many pro-Europeans among the Tories, such as the former chancellor, Ken Clarke, and the former defence secretary, Michael Heseltine, but most of them have retired or become marginalised. The Tory party is now so eurosceptic that no-one bothers to use that term any more. It is ironic that Conservatives are saying an independent Scotland might be forced out of Europe when they are actively trying to take the UK out of Europe.

Do the British people wish to leave the European Union? Well, most say they want a referendum, and around half say they actually want to leave. Whether this would actually translate into votes is another matter.

In the only British referendum on Europe, in 1975, voters started the campaign two-to-one against entry to the EEC, but ended up supporting it by a comfortable majority. Conservatives argue that things are different now, and the British are more resolute in their opposition to Brussels, which may possibly be the case. David Miliband, the former Labour leadership contender, seems to think so and he says Labour is "repositioning" itself to take account of changing attitudes to Europe.

However, there is no reason to believe British people are really in favour of "going it alone" in Europe. Over the last 20 years, thanks to low-cost airlines, Britons have become much more familiar with Europe, and Europe has become much more anglicised linguistically. Just as the SNP find it difficult to persuade people to leave the UK, the Tories would find it difficult to persuade the British people to leave Europe. Hence the repatriation strategy.

But the problem for David Cameron is that Europe is itself changing very fast now, and it may be hard for Britain to maintain its current state of half in-half out. The rest of Europe is becoming tired of British exceptionalism – the opt-out from the single currency, the former opt-out from the Social Chapter, the complaints about budget contributions.

There is a real possibility now of a two-stage Europe emerging in which Britain is on the outside with Greece, Ireland and the former communist states of central Europe. That could be a difficult sell at the next election.

The former Tory minister, Michael Portillo (pictured, left), said last week that Europe was the "curse of the Conservative Party" and he should know, since he was one of the leading Maastricht "b******s" in 1992.

It is a hugely divisive issue, and now that the eurosceptics have forced one Commons defeat on David Cameron – albeit on a vote that doesn't bind his hands – they will be ready to inflict more.

The in-fighting in the Conservative government was a major factor in the massive defeat of the Conservatives in the 1997 General Election. Ed Miliband thinks history will repeat itself, which is why he was prepared to vote with the Tory rebels last week. He is probably right.

However, it is equally possible that we are seeing the beginning of British withdrawal from Europe, just as Scotland is deciding on withdrawal from the UK.

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