Patrick Nicholls is the former Conservative MP for Teignbridge.
In 1988, when you were still at university, and I was an Under Secretary of State, I had to deliver a speech in Paris at a few hours’ notice due to the indisposition of the Minister of State. It should have been an unexceptional occasion. In fact, it changed my political outlook for ever, for in my Red Box, in addition to the speech, was a copy of the Treaty of Rome.
I had never read it before. Why should I have? I had accepted the word of a Conservative Prime Minister that the Treaty set up a free trade zone and nothing more. In fact, it was a blue print for the new country which the EU has now become. Worse was to follow when, in 1990, under the ‘thirty year rule,’ correspondence was disclosed between Edward Heath and the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir in 1960, which showed that Heath had been warned specifically what the purpose of the Treaty really was. Those of us who had been increasingly critical of our European partners for apparently changing the rules were forced to confront the fact that it was we who were seeking to alter the rules.
We were thus reduced under John Major to admitting our error, but then telling the Europeans that they had got it all wrong anyway and should, instead, do things our way. Needless to say, they were unamused. That was why so many of your colleagues were deeply concerned when at the first party conference after your election as leader, you said we should not be “banging on about Europe.” The reason why people like me were “banging on about Europe” was because everything which we as politicians would want to do is ultimately dictated by the EU, whether it is to control our own borders, to determine our own agriculture and fisheries policies, to expel criminals from other EU countries, or to strike international trade deals on terms suitable to us and not simply to the community as a whole. In short, far from Britons being a permanent majority in their own country, the EU condemns us to being a minority in the country that is now the EU.
Once you spoke of “Banging on about Europe”, the resurgence of UKIP was inevitable.
So what do we do about UKIP? Clearly my former colleagues in the House of Commons felt for the most part that eventually granting a referendum would shoot the UKIP fox. Even today, most of them still do not understand why the ruse did not work. Perhaps if I were still in Parliament I wouldn’t understand either, but I am not in Parliament and I therefore do understand. Put bluntly, they suspect that while you may genuinely want to improve Britain’s terms of membership, you nevertheless believe that Britain would still be better off in the EU, even if the present terms cannot be improved. Since our European partners know that as well, they have absolutely no incentive to make meaningful concessions.
Recently, I addressed a meeting of Conservative Patrons. I told them that the one chance we had had of dealing with UKIP was if you had made it clear when you announced the referendum that our present terms of membership are wholly unacceptable and that without radical and fundamental reform you would actively and enthusiastically campaign to leave. To do that now, when you so clearly did not believe it, would have destroyed your credibility at a stroke.
Just days after I spoke, with virtually no warning and in the most insulting and contemptuous manner possible, the EU demanded that we hand over £1.7 billion to the EU, in part to compensate France for the consequences of electing a socialist government. We have now been reduced to claiming as a triumph the fact that we will only hand over half of it.
And now in the early hours of Friday morning we suffered the loss of a second seat to UKIP in a constituency that was only 271 on their target list
But the fiasco of the rebate demand and these two devastating by-election results do, in fact, offer a way forward – and a principled one at that, because it enables you in the interests of your country to ask Nigel Farage to consider a limited electoral pact to ensure the return of pro- referendum candidates. Having once categorised UKIP as a party of “closet racists, nutters and fruitcakes,” that will be as difficult an offer for you to make as it would be for Mr Farage to accept.
Why would the UKIP leader even contemplate this? For the same reason that you would, because you are both committed patriots seeking the very best for your country and that that is the price that has to be paid to deny Ed Miliband the keys of Number 10.
In short, there is still – just – an opportunity for you to save both your country and your party, but it is an opportunity which diminishes with every waking hour.