Underrated: David Heathcoat-Amory

Here’s your starter for ten. How many Conservative frontbenchers have resigned on principle over their party’s European policy? There are, by my count, four — not counting the two MEPs, Roger Helmer and me, who returned to the backbenches when the party abandoned its commitment to a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

Three were parliamentary private secretaries. Adam Holloway and Stewart Jackson stood down last year in order to vote for a referendum on EU membership. Tony Favell resigned as PPS to the then Chancellor, John Major, when Britain joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1990 (it’s hard to think of a resignation more justified and less applauded).

The only minister to have forfeited the perks of office is David Heathcoat-Amory, the thin, clever, amiable Old Etonian who, until the last election, sat for Wells. 

The “Underrated” column might have been designed with Heathcoat-Amory in mind. In a world full of show-offs, he was bien dans sa peau. His resignation as Paymaster General in 1996 might easily have made him the public face of Tory Euroscepticism, but the BBC likes its Eurosceptics angry and bellicose, and he doesn’t fit the image. 

Within the parliamentary party, he was the acknowledged chief of the souverainistes. The very qualities that put off television editors — his discretion, his courtesy, his wry charm —appealed to his fellow MPs. Other Eurosceptics were regularly accused (sometimes with justice) of acting from rancour, or thwarted ambition, or self-promotion. No one ever levelled such charges at the Whiggish Heathcoat-Amory.

This matters in a debate which, perhaps more than any other, is about imagined motive rather than policy. While there are of course Euro-enthusiasts who believe that closer integration is in Britain’s economic interest, a surprising number approach the question by asking, not “What are the benefits to the UK?” but “What kind of person do I think I am?” Europhilia is flaunted as a sign of internationalism and broad-mindedness, like speaking a foreign language (which, in my experience, Europhiles rarely do). In a narrative which casts Eurosceptics as Blimps, football hooligans or crashing bores, Heathcoat-Amory was a presentational problem.

The loss of his seat at the last general election was disastrous. It left Tory Eurosceptics without an obvious leader. To be sure, there is plenty of patriotic talent in the new intake. But no one has quite been able to fill the gap which Heathcoat-Amory has left, partly because of his seniority, partly because of his integrity, but mainly because of his indifference to publicity. 

Heathcoat-Amory has used the past couple of years to produce his memoirs, Confessions of a Eurosceptic (Pen & Sword, £19.99). As you’d expect, it is brief, unstuffy and to the point. 

Its tone is maintained even when the author comes to the suicide of his younger son, Matthew. The chapter is harrowing, precisely because it is written in such an unselfpitying way. Heathcoat-Amory quotes a reading from the funeral service, some lines from Romeo and Juliet (“When he shall die,/Take him and cut him out in little stars . . .”). The contrast with the no-nonsense tone of the rest of the book was so jarring that I found myself blinking back tears.

Here, in short, is a brisk and unpompous memoir which incidentally makes a brisk and unpompous case against the EU.

As the minister responsible for Western Europe, Heathcoat-Amory also covered Latin American countries. He observes en passant that:

Cultivating these relationships seemed a better use of my time than spending hundreds of hours in Brussels arguing about strategic growth initiatives — particularly as many . . . were growing faster than the rather sclerotic trade bloc that the EU had become.

Put like that, it pretty well demolishes the case for UK membership of the EU. 

Heathcoat-Amory lost Wells by 800 votes. The UKIP candidate polled 1,711. The smaller party’s insistence on standing was, sadly, to put impossible strain on Heathcoat-Amory’s friendship with Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the former Tory peer who at that time was leading UKIP. It was also, of course, to remove the Tory Eurosceptic leader and install a federalist Lib Dem.

There, in miniature, is Britain’s tragedy. A fundamentally Eurosceptic electorate keeps returning Euro-enthusiast majorities to the House of Commons, partly because the anti-Brussels vote is dispersed. 

One way or another, we have to get to the stage where Tory and UKIP voters can back the same candidates. Heathcoat-Amory was someone with the authority to broker such a deal. In his absence, it’s not clear who can.

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