If six months ago I had told you the Prime
Minister was shortly going to offer the country an in/out referendum on our EU
membership, you would not have believed me.
We have travelled a long way since then. Many
of us have contributed to the journey, and I thank my 100 back bench colleagues
who signed our letter in June.
On the Conservative benches, the speech has been
met with universal acclaim, for it is in the country’s interest. It will also
be welcomed by the British electorate, as I hope opinion polls will confirm.
However, there is one further step the Prime Minister should take which would
cement this achievement.
The letter we sent the Prime Minister in June
called upon the Government to place legislation on the Statute Book in this
Parliament for a referendum in the next. There are good reasons for passing
enabling legislation this side of the General Election. Whilst not doubting the
Prime Minister’s sincerity, the British public tend to be cynical when they
hear promises being made by politicians about Europe. Too many have been broken about EU referenda.
They remember Tony Blair’s promise about the EU Constitution and the Liberal
Democrats’ 2010 manifesto. None of which have come to anything.
The advantage of legislation on the Statute
Book is that it would put a plebiscite beyond doubt. Voters would know that,
whichever Government was elected, they would definitely have their say. Whilst
true that legislation can be repealed, any incoming Prime Minister would find
it difficult to overturn such a popular piece of legislation.
I see few downsides in putting legislation in
front of Parliament as soon as practically possible – the Prime Minister
indicated it was already being drafted. Furthermore, it would force Labour to
come off the fence on the referendum issue. If they and the Liberals voted it down,
their position would be laid bare for all to see. Voters would know that they
would have to vote Conservative to get their referendum.
Finally, we should not listen to Labour and
Liberal cries that uncertainty over a referendum will harm business. Many
business organisations and leaders have come out in support of the Prime
Minister’s position. They want a loser relationship with the EU, based on trade
and the Single Market rather than politics and bureaucracy. They know that we
run a massive trade deficit with the EU: the EU exports more to the UK than to
the US and China combined. They know they need us more than we need them, and
so logic suggests the EU will offer flexibility. Let us hope so, but at least
by 2017 the ‘in’ position will be clarified.