ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on how the ‘bastard’ tendency which tormented John Major over the Maastricht Treaty has finally got its way.
Have a guess where I was in early December 1991, and again in February 1992.
Very well done at home, as mega-selling novelist Richard Osman says to viewers of BBC’s Pointless show, if a Dutch city the size of Blackburn popped into your head. Yes, I was covering the summit and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty for the Daily Mirror.
There was such interest in the summit that by the time I got round to booking a hotel, there was not a room to be found for miles around. I contacted an old friend from my bagpipe-busking days (the Dutch guilder was the perfect busking currency pre the euro for which Maastricht paved the way) who found me a spare room in a house owned by a family friend. It was a tiny top-floor bedroom overlooking the River Meuse, but I learned that some people have Gouda cheese on crackers, sprinkled with chocolate, for breakfast. As a cheese-loving chocaholic, I found this to be a wonderful learning.
Working for the only robustly pro-Labour, pro-European national paper, my reports were very much focused on prime minister John Major being forced to isolate the UK in order – a familiar theme – to appease Tory MPs.
The Mirror ran headlines on my reports such as “Major Euro Letdown”, “Division Two Britain”, “Major leaves Britain out in the cold”, or, particularly OTT, “The Lepers of Europe”. Then there was “Disaster: Kinnock blasts Euro deal”, with a quote from “Labour employment spokesman Tony Blair” that “Britain will be locked in the waiting room while others are in the conference room”. And a full page piece, headlined “Raw Deal” illustrated by a cartoon of German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president Francois Mitterrand roaring in a giant EU limo past Major’s old banger.
The Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, took a very different view. “In almost every sense,” wrote one Boris Johnson, “it was a copybook triumph for Mr Major, the stuff of Foreign Office dreams.” Right wing media sycophancy to Tory PMs is nothing new.
To be fair to Sir John, something I rarely was when he was PM but have become much more so thanks to his often withering assessment of Johnson and the Vote Leave cabinet sect, getting the word ‘federal’ removed from the Treaty, securing an ‘opt-out’ from the Social Chapter and making sure Britain was not committed to monetary union, were significant achievements set against his objectives ahead of the summit. But it was never enough for the people he himself referred to as “bastards”, in one of those microphone-still-on post-interview Oops moments. Gordon Brown had his ‘bigotgate’ mic-still-on moment. But it largely came and went. Major’s bastards never left him alone.
It’s remarkable how many of the key figures from Maastricht are dead, and how many of the bastards are very much alive and kicking, playing an important role in the Brexit catastrophe. Kohl, Mitterrand and Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, all dead. The summit host, Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers, dead. Irish Taoiseach Charlie Haughey dead, and as he is so, I hope it is OK to reveal that he and his team, and a couple of Danes, were my best sources for the stories I was doing about how badly things were going for Major.
Most of the leading bastards are still with us, and most days at least one of them has a chair in the Today programme studio before heading off to College Green. When Major uttered the B-word to ITN’s Mike Brunson, both unaware their exchanges were still being recorded by the BBC pool feed, he had three cabinet ministers in mind, Michael Howard, Peter Lilley, and Michael Portillo, Brexit bastards still, though Howard did at least speak out against Johnson’s law-breaking Internal Market Bill. John Redwood was one rung down from the cabinet, not practising his Welsh. Iain Duncan Smith, elected in April 1992, was a well-organised bastard organiser outside the cabinet. David Davis was heading towards being Major’s Europe minister, training for fully fledged career-long bastarding.
“Bastards” was not the only memorable phrase Major dropped that day. “The dispossessed and the never-possessed” was another. Brunson couldn’t understand why Major didn’t just sack the trouble-making trio. The answer was parliamentary arithmetic. “I could bring in other people. But where do you think most of this poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. You can think of ex-ministers who are going around causing all sorts of trouble. We don’t want another three more of the bastards out there. What’s Lyndon Johnson’s maxim? It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”
Among the never-possessed was another bastard whose role in Brexit does not get the recognition it deserves, and that is Bill Cash, now 80, still an MP, still utterly obsessed with “Maaaastricht”, and who has pissed tank-loads of trouble into the tent of Tory leaders until finally having one in Johnson more aligned with what he has fought for since the day that Treaty was signed. He too was a useful contact, because we had a shared interest in undermining the government of the day. And when I chaired a late night panel chatshow in the early days of Radio Five Live, he was one of my regulars. Day or night, if there was a chance to have a pop at “Maaaaastricht”, Bill Cash would take it.
Cash was useful mainly though, because even on a tabloid like the Mirror, we had to keep on top of the tortuous twists and turns of the Maastricht process, which seemed to drag on for ever. That is why I find it literally incredible that a 1,246-page plus Treaty (or 500 pages according to Johnson, who clearly still doesn’t bother to read anything longer than an article written by himself) should get through parliament with a day’s scrutiny. Cash and Co were capable of demanding a full day to discuss whether there should be a colon or semi-colon at the end of the sub-section of a Clause pertaining to a Statutory Instrument.
I find it even more incredible, especially given Johnson’s stellar record on talking up triumphs and promises which fall apart on inspection or implementation, that the Labour opposition should announce a decision to vote for the deal without seeing a single word of it. The Labour opposition under Neil Kinnock voted against Maastricht on account of what Major was presenting as his great triumph, the opt out from the Social Chapter. That’s what the Mirror’s “Raw Deal” headline was about, as shown by the sub-deck: “British workers left out in the cold.”
The Brexit Treaty, or the Trade Reduction Treaty as Andrew Adonis has christened it, will do far more damage to the rights, lives and livelihoods of the British working and middle classes Labour represent, and whose support they need, than the Social Chapter opt-out did. Worse, when that damage is inflicted, as it will be in so many ways, we can all too easily visualise Boris Johnson, standing at that Despatch Box, and taunting Labour leader Keir Starmer: “But you voted for it.”
Meanwhile, as one gaslighting chapter draws to a close, another opens, and Michael Gove, a cabinet minister for most of the Tory decade, tells us that leaving the EU allows us to address the “inequalities and injustices” in the UK. The UK government has had all the powers it needs to address inequalities and injustices. Under three prime ministers over that decade, with Gove a regular thread, it has chosen not to. David Cameron’s austerity created new inequalities and injustices, and exacerbated old ones. Theresa May talked the talk about addressing “burning injustices”, but Brexit ensured she failed. Covid has helped to expose further chronic inequalities and injustices. And far from Brexit dealing with inequalities and injustices, it will create more of them.
The story Johnson was proudest of was not, contrary to myth, his lies about the Commission banning bent bananas or insisting on one-size-fits-all condoms, the size related to Italian penis-length, but a front page ‘exclusive’ he wrote in 1994, headlined “Delors’ plan to rule Europe”. That it wasn’t true didn’t bother him then, and it certainly doesn’t bother him now.
Jacques Delors, the Ursula von der Leyen of his day, is still with us, at 95 the oldest-living survivor of the Maastricht drama. Boris Johnson is 56, and prime minister of a government so far to the right, so cavalier with the truth, and so reckless in its policies and foreign relations, that John Major can barely speak of it without needing to swear.