Margaret Thatcher was dragged into the debate about Britain’s relationship with the EU when one of her closest former advisers claimed she would have voted to stay in.
Lord Powell, who served as the former prime minister’s foreign affairs private secretary for much of her time in office and was a trusted member of her inner circle, claimed on Sunday that although she “raged” against the EU, she would have accepted the renegotiation deal secured by David Cameron.
Powell made the claim as Cameron came under attack from dozens of senior grassroots Conservatives who said in a joint letter that it was “deeply regrettable” that he had urged MPs to ignore the views of their local parties.
It is widely believed that Lady Thatcher decided after she left office that Britain would be better off leaving the EU. This has been confirmed by Charles Moore, her official biographer, although Moore says she was persuaded not to say this in public.
But in an article in the Sunday Times Powell says he thinks that on balance she would have decided to back remaining in the EU on renegotiated terms.
“Margaret Thatcher’s heart was never in our membership of the EU. But l am convinced her head would continue to favour staying in on the conditions now on offer,” Powell writes.
“There were certainly times as prime minister when her frustration with Europe boiled over. The one thing I never heard her propose was Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
“Perhaps she would have persevered for longer before settling than the present prime minister and raged more mightily. But at the end of the day I am confident she would have settled, and for something very close to what is on offer now.”
Lord Tebbit, the former Conservative chairman and close ally of Thatcher’s, dismissed Powell’s claim and said he knew her views better than Powell.
“Attributing views to somebody who is dead in circumstances rather different to those in her lifetime is a very subjective matter,” Tebbit told the Sunday Times.
“I recollect her words at the dispatch box on the [Jacques] Delors plan for Europe, which remains the policy of the commission and the European parliament. Her words were to each of the proposals: ‘No, no, no.’ I think it more likely that were she alive, then she would be saying: ‘No, no, no.’”
In a separate development, the Sunday Telegraph published a letter from 44 chairmen and other senior representatives of 43 local Conservative associations. The letter was prompted by Cameron telling Tory MPs in the Commons on Wednesday when considering how to vote in the EU referendum: “Don’t take a view because of what your constituency association might say ... Do what’s in your heart, if you think it’s right for Britain then do that.”
Surveys suggest that Conservative members are overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU, and grassroots Tories are angry about the idea that their views should be overlooked.
In their letter the activists write: “It was through the dedication and hard work of Conservative party members that David Cameron secured the majority he needed to form a government.
“Grassroots Conservatives pounded the streets in all weather, knocking on doors, running street stalls and raising money to ensure that their Conservative candidates were elected and Mr Cameron would secure a majority.
“It is deeply regrettable that the prime minister dismisses the very people who helped secure his victory, and he should remember that no prime minister has a divine right to rule.”
A Downing Street spokesman said that Cameron had “the greatest of respect” for Conservative associations and that he was simply urging MPs to vote with their conscience.
Government ministers are not allowed to speak out in favour of leaving the EU until Cameron’s EU renegotiation is concluded – probably at an EU summit ending on Friday 19 February – but it has been reported that Priti Patel, the employment minister, has firmly decided that she will campaign for Brexit. This was expected because Patel, who started her career in politics working for the anti-EU Referendum party in the 1990s, has always been a strong Eurosceptic.
Michael Gove, the justice secretary, is said to be agonising over what to do, torn between his personal loyalty to Cameron and George Osborne, the chancellor, and his personal doubts about EU membership.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP and mayor of London, is another figure yet to declare his hand. But in the Mail on Sunday the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin said Johnson told him in a conversation in the Commons chamber on Wednesday: “I’ve never been an ‘outer’.”
Jenkin took that as an indication that Johnson would come out in favour of remaining in the EU.
This article was written by Andrew Sparrow Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 7th February 2016 11.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010