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Whatever happened to the 2011 Eurosceptic Rebels?

8 min read

Ten years on from what was the largest postwar rebellion on Europe, Sebastian Whale looks back at a pivotal moment in the race to secure an EU referendum – and the little-known group of Conservative MPs who helped bring it about

Eight Tory MPs gathered for their weekly meeting in Room R of Portcullis House. It was October 2011, and around the table were Peter Bone, Steve Baker, Philip Hollobone, Douglas Carswell, Christopher Chope, David Nuttall, Mark Reckless and John Baron, referred to by one of their own as the “essential awkward squad”. 

The R Group, named after the room where they met every Tuesday at 8.30am, discussed ideas on wielding influence while the Conservatives were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Their particular bugbear: the European Union.

Spotting an opening where others had failed to see a threat, the R Group had already infiltrated a key parliamentary body in charge of scheduling debates in the Commons. Behind the scenes, members had also collected signatures from sympathetic MPs for a motion on Britain’s membership of the EU.

A potential slot had emerged in the parliamentary schedule to debate holding an EU referendum. After months of planning, the R Group was ready to make its move.

Brexiteers have the BBC to thank for helping to secure a referendum on the European Union – the parliamentary committee, not the Corporation. 

The government whips didn’t pay any significant attention to the committee’s creation and therefore didn’t attempt to influence who was elected

Introduced in June 2010, the Backbench Business Committee was the brainchild of former Labour MP for Cannock Chase, Tony Wright. The BBC provided for the first time the chance for backbenchers to put forward voteable yet non-binding debates on a subject of their choice. Seen as a means of restoring MPs’ standing in the wake of the expenses scandal, the newly-established coalition government welcomed the proposals, while an incalcitrant group of Eurosceptics noticed an opportunity. 

“If we could get on that committee, we could get the issues that we wanted voted on and debated on,” says Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingborough. “The government whips didn’t pay any significant attention to the committee’s creation and therefore didn’t attempt to influence who was elected.”

R Group members Hollobone and Bone managed to secure places on the BBC, while Philip Davies, a noted free-thinking backbencher, was also elected. In Natascha Engel, a Labour MP and future deputy speaker, the R Group found a sympathetic chair. “We had a significant influence on what happened there,” says Bone.

Sitting next to David Cameron in Parliament’s tea room, Bone turned to the Prime Minister and mused: “Isn’t it great that we can have debates and votes on issues we want?” According to Bone, Cameron “sputtered his cup of tea”. “He hadn’t realised the significance of the committee,” he claims.

The Tory leader was already feeling pressure over the Europe question. Nigel Farage’s Ukip was on the rise, 22 (fairly minor) Tory EU rebellions had taken place in the Commons, and in September 2011, a petition carrying more than 100,000 signatures calling for a referendum found its way to Downing Street. 

Unrest on the Tory backbenches had mounted ever since Gordon Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty in December 2007. The Conservatives entered the 2010 election vowing a so-called “referendum lock” to ensure “the British people will have their say” on any new transfer of powers – a U-turn on Cameron’s previous commitment to a referendum on the treaty itself.

MPs were also displeased to see foreign secretary William Hague apparently resile from his Eurosceptic tendencies. “There was a view that he had been captured by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office mandarins and the realpolitik in the FCO,” says Stewart Jackson, the former MP for Peterborough.

The R Group had been working on an EU referendum motion that could garner the support of fellow Eurosceptics. Members went about carefully placating and assuring senior MPs over its wording, using “a little bit of subterfuge” where necessary to ensure they could coalesce around one position, says Bone.

The final motion called for a referendum with three options: keeping the status quo, leaving the EU, or reforming the terms of the UK’s membership. “I’m very sure the whips didn’t know this was going on,” says Bone. “Not on that scale, anyway.”

Backbench business debates took place on a Thursday afternoon, and when a gap emerged, Hollobone called for action. The group chose David Nuttall, MP for Bury North, to propose the motion, rather than a more prominent Eurosceptic, as other senior backbenchers could “get the hump”. “It was a way of bringing everyone together,” Bone explains.

David Cameron gave me a look of absolute thunder and fury

Nuttall presented the motion to the BBC, and Bone and Hollobone went to work. “We were able to persuade the committee to have it tabled,” says Hollobone. “And then, all hell broke loose.”

While non-binding, votes on backbench business motions were taken more seriously by the coalition than subsequent administrations. Earlier in 2011, MPs had defied the government and supported a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. “Cameron did have this weird period in that parliament of overreacting to backbench motions,” says Jackson, then PPS to Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson.

And so, when the contentious issue of an EU referendum reared its head, the Conservatives instigated a stringent three-line whip to oppose. “The government was absolutely livid,” says Hollobone. The vote was also moved from Thursday 27 to a more prime time slot on Monday 24 October, to allow the Prime Minister and Hague – both destined for a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia – to attend.

Over the weekend, the whips and senior party leadership put the squeeze on MPs. “The government went in very, very hard,” says Jackson. Hollobone adds: “People were told their careers wouldn’t even get off the ground; there would be eternal retribution.”

Douglas Carswell, who would later defect to Ukip, spotted that Steve Baker would serve well as the R Group’s chief whip. When his briefing email to MPs was leaked to the Guido Fawkes blog, the site dubbed him “The Rebel Commander”. Later famed for his ability to marshal Eurosceptics, Baker notes: “Successive chief whips have got a lot to thank Douglas Carswell for!” 

On the morning of the vote, Hague said that a referendum would create “additional economic uncertainty” at a “difficult economic time”. Downing Street was hopeful that at least one of three amendments to the motion would be selected, believing it would reduce the size of a rebellion by splitting the vote. But as expected, Speaker John Bercow, by now a thorn deep in Cameron’s side, rejected them outright.

With a sizeable rebellion in the offing, Baker encountered the Prime Minister in the division lobbies. “David gave me a look of absolute thunder and fury,” he recalls. The Wycombe MP had earlier told Patrick McLoughlin, the chief whip, that he would still vote for a referendum even if he were standing with a machine gun at the lobby’s exit.

After five and a half hours of debate, the government defeated the motion by 483 to 111. But Cameron had endured the largest postwar rebellion on Europe in the process, with 81 Tory MPs voting in favour and 15 abstaining. Despite rumours that several ministers were supportive, the only government casualties were Jackson and Adam Holloway, who both resigned as PPSs. “Rather than just make it a free vote, it was inexplicable that they gave it a three-line whip,” recalls Holloway.

In total, a staggering 49 Conservatives elected in 2010 faced down considerable pressure and rebelled. “It showed that those newer MPs were perhaps rather more in touch with opinion on the doorstep than others,” says Hollobone.

If David Nuttall and the R Group hadn’t put that vote on, I’m sure we wouldn’t have secured a referendum

Some 19 Labour MPs, including Engel, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, also defied their party’s three-line whip, while one Lib Dem – Adrian Sanders – followed suit. Among the Tory names were future Remainers Sarah Wollaston (then a Eurosceptic), Caroline Nokes and Robin Walker. 

For some Brexiteers, the rebellion was a landmark moment. “It was absolutely central and pivotal in the development of the history of the UK,” says Baker. “If David Nuttall and the R Group hadn’t put that vote on, I’m sure we wouldn’t have secured a referendum, and as a result, we would have continued in the European Union. It was one of several critical path events.”

Stewart says: “It was epoch-making. To use the cliché, it was a ‘paradigm shift'." Bone concludes: “From that point, it was inevitable that if the Conservatives remained in power, we would finish up with a referendum.”

In his autobiography, For The Record, Cameron defended opposing the motion but conceded his tactics “may have been cack-handed on this occasion” and said the rebellion “showed the extent to which the ground was moving beneath us”. In January 2013, Cameron committed publicly to an EU referendum if the Conservatives won a majority at the next election. 

There are other significant developments to consider, notably Speaker Bercow granting an extra amendment to the Queen’s Speech in March 2013, which criticised the lack of legislation to hold an in/out EU referendum. Farage’s surging popularity was also a major factor. But before the ERG gained notoriety, a little known group of Eurosceptics, taking advantage of an empowered Commons, helped kickstart the journey to a coveted EU referendum that changed the course of the United Kingdom. 

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