It seems to me that an EU referendum in 2014 is exactly what people want and precisely what our Party needs to win in 2015. This is why I have now tabled an amendment to the EU Referendum Bill to bring forward the vote.
It was never going to be popular to break with the conventional wisdom or our current narrative. But I truly believe it’s in our national interest to hold an early referendum, and one of the key benefits would be to bring the conservative family back together to win convincingly in 2015.
There is overwhelming support for an EU vote and a strong case for getting it done in October 2014:
We need to be realistic
Let’s just look at this once again. People want an EU vote. They don’t understand why we can’t have a vote before the next election or why the Government would need four years to renegotiate. Half of the British population wants a referendum immediately and another one in three people want it in the ‘next few years’. People are anxious to get on with it. They don’t want to wait for four years.
I entirely trust the Prime Minister to deliver a referendum in 2017 if we win the election, but we have to face the facts: voters are suspicious of all mainstream politicians. All the surveys confirm this distrust. In this climate people may well believe we’re kicking the can down the road. And we can’t stop them thinking that it might happen again in four years’ time. By holding the referendum we will have reaffirmed people’s faith in our Party – all doubt will have been removed.
This issue is painful, but we must ask ourselves the difficult question: are we so very sure that the promise of an EU referendum in 2017 will convince people to return to the Conservatives in sufficient numbers to win an outright victory? Or are we just hoping that will be the case?
Under these circumstances, it is at least a possibility that we will not get a Conservative government nor ever see a referendum.
There is little doubt that many people will vote UKIP in the EU elections next May – maybe just to lodge their protest or spur on the Conservatives to deliver a referendum.
The electoral calculus is telling. UKIP are polling at about 10 per cent. Three per cent voted for them in 2010 and if only five per cent were to support them in 2015, then Labour would win the election. A Labour-led government will not hold an EU vote.
Why 2014 rather than 2017? On top of public opinion, businesses thinking of investing here need to know where this country will be in 12 months so they can make long-term investment plans. A 2014 referendum would spare these businesses years of uncertainty and give us an economic boost – something all Conservatives are passionate about.
This would also draw a line under this issue so the Party could fight the 2015 election, united together, on the economy and the great things that we have already achieved even in Coalition. I know we can beat Labour in a straight fight on the economy. But with the EU referendum hanging over our heads we may not get the chance to persuade people they are better off voting Conservative.
Finally, an early EU vote lets us tie up another one of our difficult constitutional issues. Late October will leave a month’s breathing space after the Scottish referendum; we could put a line under both of these difficult constitutional issues without them interfering with each other.
This amendment builds on the strength of the Conservative Party’s current policy.
Alongside my Conservative colleagues, I trust David Cameron to deliver a referendum in 2017; he is absolutely a man of his word. He is also the right man to lead our negotiations with Europe, and an early referendum will strengthen his hand in these talks.
This amendment will force EU leaders to the table. If they want the UK to stay within the EU, they will quickly present the options to show to the British people. This amendment does not propose a referendum next week or next month. A year is sensible amount of time to achieve any negotiations that are possible.
James Wharton’s Bill
James Wharton’s Bill is a fantastic accomplishment for James and for the Conservative Party; an accomplishment that we have achieved in the spite of the resistance from Liberal Democrats in the Coalition. I support his Bill, let there be no doubt about that.
His Bill shows that the Conservative Party is in tune with the British people and the businesses that operate in this country. After waiting nearly 40 years people will finally get a say – if we win the next election.
Parliamentary procedure: The amendment will not endanger the Bill
Some people have said that this amendment might drag out the debate on the Bill, meaning that it might not get through the Commons. I don’t think that is quite right for three reasons.
First, in Parliament, if discussion is taking too long, MPs can collectively vote to end the debate within a matter of hours. Secondly, an amendment may be withdrawn. Thirdly, if few MPs support an amendment then it may not be called by the Speaker. These are all possibilities and there will be no need to take time if MPs don’t want to support a referendum in 2014. I am acutely conscious of that fact and will act accordingly.
If this amendment passes, I think that it would be great news. If it doesn’t look like it has support then the Bill can continue its course through Parliament without delay. As a dyed-in-the-wool democrat, I think that Parliament, representing the British people, should have its say on this matter.
Holding a referendum in 2017 is only one option of many. It is paramount that Parliament gets to consider all the available timelines. That is the strength of our parliamentary system. It is a place where we can have respectful debates about how to tackle hard problems. It makes perfect sense that Parliament should have the chance to reflect on alternative timings to make sure that our course of action is the best for this country.
The practice of amending Bills
It is standard parliamentary practice that backbench MPs put their names to amendments. There may be many more. I am putting my name to this one. It wasn’t an easy decision. But the British people and British businesses want certainty and to give them that certainty we need an EU vote sooner rather than later.
Our Party and the conservative family are completely united in the view that we should have a referendum. I suspect that, if asked in private, the majority of Conservative MPs and Conservative supporters would like to hold that referendum in 2014; but they would not wish an attempt to do so to thwart a referendum in 2017 if it failed. Nor do I.
I believe this is the right thing to do. It’s vitally important for the Party that MPs are given another option, to hold the EU referendum early; to acknowledge public opinion and respond to the British people.
It is very much my hope that other MPs will take the time to reflect on this amendment, look at the reasons carefully and take soundings from their constituents. Given what’s at stake, I believe it’s important that our Party has the chance to at least consider a 2014 referendum in Parliament.
It may be unsettling to challenge the current political wisdom, but my primary concern is that we see our colleagues in marginal seats returned to Parliament and a wholly Conservative government in 2015. I don’t want our great Party to sleepwalk into defeat by not having at least considered the alternative.