The markedly improved tone of the debate was one of the closing remarks made by Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, to his interview with Steve Baker MP, co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain (CfB).
The MP for Wycombe joined a packed-out crowd in the ConHome marquee to address a simple question: should Britain leave the EU?
According to Baker, he was brought into politics by the Lisbon Treaty, which he viewed as an attempt to re-impose the European Constitution without consulting national electorates.
His Euroscepticism is rooted in his classical liberal politics, which hold that the EU is an archaic hangover from the post-war fad for central planning, taking power further and further from the citizen even as it fails to adapt to changing conditions.
What Britain needs, in his view, is “a common market with the world”. He suggested that a statist consensus had “over-complicated” free trade by requiring regulatory harmonisation.
CfB wants a relationship with Europe that confines the EU’s influence to matters pertaining to European trade, and removes it from the UK’s internal affairs.
Baker was quick to point out that CfB is not officially a “Leave” institution yet, and includes many people who will not make a final decision on the EU until they see the deal that the Prime Minister brings back.
However, whilst he has no doubt that David Cameron was sincerely campaigning for change, Baker is pessimistic about his chances of achieving it, highlighting how the EU “juggernaut” had simply undone several of the Prime Minister’s key European achievements, such as the budget cut.
He therefore expects to end up campaigning to leave, and hopes to build a campaign which the Prime Minister – who has ruled nothing out – could lead.
Next there came questions from the audience – nearly all of which, in marked contrast to some other fringes, came from Party members, and covered a huge range of topics.
Regarding the economic impact of leaving, Baker conceded that some of Britain’s commercial rivals, such as Germany, might try to use commercial pressures to undermine the City – he described this as “part of the game”.
However, he added that a combination of the EU’s own “hard-nosed interests” and World Trade Organisation rules forbidding the reintroduction of tariffs between nations mean that the EU won’t be able to throw up a wall against British trade.
Other questioners asked about the tone of the campaign, with several remarking on the sour and divided legacy of the Scottish referendum campaign.
Baker agreed that the “Leave” campaign needs to be upbeat, outward-looking and optimistic, based on both an ambitious assessment of Britain’s potential to compete in global trade and democratic concern about the concentration of power in Brussels.
He added that the Scottish referendum had highlighted the importance of minimising nationalism, and argued that immigration should not form a key plank of the debate because “Britain is a greater country than that.”
The audience drew parallels to another aspect of the Scotland debate: what do Eurosceptics do if they lose the referendum? Should they immediately begin agitating for another, as the SNP have done in Scotland?
The MP for Wycombe suggested there was a “common-sense limit” to the number of times the SNP could reasonably demand a poll on breaking up the UK. However, he rejected the parallel with the EU because, in his view, “there is no status quo” in Europe.
The Eurozone countries are on a path to federation in an attempt to remedy the deep structural problems wracking their union. Whilst acknowledging the importance of this for European stability, and arguing that Britain shouldn’t stand in the way, Baker said that the prospect of imminent change means that he can’t rule out seeking another referendum within a set timeframe.
On the technicalities of leaving, CfB do not believe that there will be any dramatic market events after the vote. Disentanglement would be a “continual process of readjustment”, according to Baker, but Parliament could repeal critical pieces of legislation – such as elements of the European Communities Act, which would free the UK from the European Court of Justice – “in an afternoon”.