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Vote that nearly changed the course of history

By Mark Andrews | Oswestry | Politics | Published:

It was a sight which was rare, even in the cut-and-thrust of the House of Commons.

"Grown men were being physically manhandled into the lobby to vote with the Government," says Christopher Gill.

Twenty-five years ago on Saturday, the former Ludlow MP was the unofficial whip to a group of Conservative rebels who came within a hair's breadth of bringing down John Major's Government.

Mr Gill, along with Oswestry MP John Biffen, Wolverhampton's Nick Budgen and Stafford's Bill Cash, were the leaders of a plot to vote down the Maastricht Treaty, which led to the creation of today's European Union.

He insists he was no diehard euro rebel – he says up until that time he had paid little interest in European affairs – but when he read the terms of Maastricht he immediately became alarmed.

The treaty proposed to replace the European Economic Community, which had largely been about trade, with a new body that laid down a framework for policies on foreign affairs, military matters, criminal justice and judicial cooperation.

What will surprise many is that one of the men doing the cajoling was an up-and-coming government whip called David Davis, now a leading Conservative eurosceptic and the minister leading Britain's withdrawal from the EU.

"It has been a long time now, and I can't honestly remember who it was who was doing the manhandling, but he was one of the whips," he says.

"It's amazing how politicians are able to reinvent themselves.

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"You get people who were previously on one side who are suddenly on the other."

The vote was on a so-called paving motion, which would lay out a timetable for the adoption of the Treaty, which had already got through its first two readings.

John Major, who replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990, had been riding on the crest of a wave since his surprise general election victory in April 1992, with polls consistently showing him to be one of the most popular Prime Ministers of modern times.

His negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty, which saw him secure opt-outs from the single European currency, the Euro, and the social chapter which laid down pan-European employment legislation, had been hailed as a great negotiating triumph. Mr Major himself declared it as "game, set and match", and statesmanlike images of him at the Maastricht conference took centre stage in party election broadcasts. Mr Gill was never convinced.

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"I think the European leaders simply decided which concessions they could give to save Major, because they knew that at heart he was pro-EU," he says.

Mr Gill says the paving motion was highly unusual, and believes the Prime Minister used it to test the water as he became increasingly anxious after the Danes had rejected the treaty in a referendum.

"Normally, after you have had the first and second readings, a bill will go straight to the committee stages, but I think the Government was getting anxious," he says.

Mr Gill, who lives in Bridgnorth, says he went into the vote believing he had enough support to defeat it with a majority of 10. The Labour opposition, led by John Smith, had decided to vote against Maastricht for tactical reasons, but the Liberal Democrats were expected to support the Government.

However, when it came to the crunch, Mr Gill found that a number of MPs who had pledged their support to him decided instead to vote for the treaty. The motion was carried by three votes.

"Had but two of the 10 colleagues who, prior to 6pm that very evening, had assured me of their vote in the No lobby stuck to their word when the division was called at 10pm, the whole course of British history would have been entirely different," he says.

Mr Gill says he never found what it was that persuaded them to switch sides, although he admits that defeat for the Government would have probably led to a motion of no confidence. But he also remembers how harshly the Prime Minister and his whips dealt with dissenting MPs.

What even the mild-mannered John Major, with his carefully honed "nice guy" image?

"Don't underestimate John Major, he was ruthless," says Mr Gill, who quit parliament in 2001 and later defected to the UK Independence Party.

"Just before one of the votes he called me in to see him, and he had been doing his digging.

"He told me he knew I was happily married, that I had a successful business, and that I was not ambitious to become a minister.

"He had nothing he could use against me, but if he had found something I'm sure he would have used it.

"I remember at the time, constituents would go up to me and say what a nice man he was, and I used to reply 'you wouldn't like to work for him'."

Divisions over Britain's role in Europe, and the Maastricht Treaty in particularly, would dog Major's government right the way up until his defeat at the hands of Tony Blair's New Labour in 1997. The following year, Mr Major was forced to rely on a vote of confidence in his government to force Maastricht onto the statute books, after being defeated in the Commons.

Mr Gill firmly believes that if a couple more MPs had stuck to their word a quarter of a century ago, the Maastricht Treaty would have been buried, Britain would have forged a different kind of relationship with its European neighbours, and there would have been no need for the EU referendum. And, of course, David Davis would not find himself locked in negotiations with Michel Barnier.

"That would have been the end of the Maastricht Treaty, and the course of British history of the last 25 years would have been totally different," he says.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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