Why I regret the fact that the Queen’s Speech didn’t contain a Referendum Bill – and I’m delighted the Conservative Party is publishing a draft Bill today
I've written an article for The Telegraph explaining why I regret the fact that the Queen’s Speech didn’t contain a Referendum Bill – and why I’m delighted the Conservative Party is publishing a draft Bill today.
All my life, our relationship with Europe has plagued British politics. It has divided my party and to a lesser extent the other two main parties. The electorate too has never reached a settled view on the issue – according to the latest poll, a significant minority want the UK to leave the EU and many of those like myself who are reluctant to see us do so are nonetheless unhappy with the current terms of the relationship. Many people have never had the chance to have their say about this issue and many of those who did vote “yes” in the 1975 referendum feel that they were voting for a common market and have ended up with something very different.
In January, the Prime Minister gave a long-awaited speech about the future of Europe. He argued that the EU is going to have to change as a result of the eurozone crisis; that this presents an opportunity for the UK to renegotiate its relationship; and that once we have done so this deal should be put to the British people in an in/out referendum in the first half of the next Parliament.
I believe this is a policy around which all Conservatives should be able to unite and more importantly that it is the right policy for this country. We need to resolve this issue once and for all and the only way to do that is to allow the British people to have their say.
But there is a problem: those of my electors who feel strongly about this issue believe that David Cameron promised them a referendum last time. For what it’s worth, they’re wrong – he promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty if and only if it hadn’t been ratified by the time he came to power – but in politics it’s perception that matters. We need to convince these electors that we mean what we say and the best way to do that would be to pass legislation in this Parliament providing for a referendum.
I would have liked to see such legislation in the Queen’s Speech, but sadly the Liberal Democrats blocked it (despite saying in their 2010 manifesto that they “remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British Government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU”).
On many issues, there is common ground between the two parties, but on Europe we are poles apart and we need to make sure that the electorate understand that. That’s why I’ll be voting for John Baron’s amendment expressing regret that my party’s policy on this issue wasn’t included in the Coalition Government’s legislative programme.
And that’s why I am delighted my party is today publishing a draft Referendum Bill. We need to find a way to get a vote on this Bill and then we’ll see whether Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs are prepared to deny the British people their say on this issue.
Finally a word of warning to some of my colleagues. We are on the right side of this issue, but we must not delude ourselves that Europe on its own is going to decide the next Election. Many people feel passionately about it, but for most people the dominant issue is the economy – tackling the deficit, getting the economy growing, creating jobs. We have got what we wanted, or at least as close to what we wanted as we are going to get given the constraints of coalition.
We must give our Prime Minister the space to talk about the economy, welfare reform, school standards, immigration and the quality of care in our NHS. If we don’t do that, if we keep banging on about solely about Europe, we run the risk of turning what should be a vote winner into a vote loser.