Although we have a funny way of showing it, the Conservative Party has rarely been more united on the vexed and vexatious question of our relationship with the European Union. After forty years' of conflict between Europhiles and Europhobes, the vast majority of contemporary Conservatives have settled somewhere on the common ground of Euroscepticism. Almost all of us believe that we have given up too many powers to Brussels and allowed our sovereignty to be encroached in too many areas. Almost all of us have concluded that Britain's continued participation in the European Union will require the negotiation of a new deal, which shifts the balance back in favour of Westminster. Almost all of us want the voters to be given a chance to express their opinion on the question of our continued membership. With little disagreement about the direction of Conservative policy or the destination we want to achieve for our country, the differences that have generated so much heated argument in recent days relate to tactics and timing.
Those who have signed today's motion want us to have a referendum before we start the long, hard slog of renegotiating the terms of our membership, a process which can only get properly underway under a majority government and which will then take several years to complete. They argue that a clear vote in favour of a renegotiated settlement will strengthen our hands in the negotiation and make it harder for our European partners to drag their feet or fob us off with paltry offers. In this, I fear my colleagues, though admirably well-intentioned, are misguided for two reasons.
Their first error is to presume that they can predict how people will vote in such a referendum. Our Liberal Democrat colleagues made the same mistake earlier this year. Because the opinion polls suggested that people believed our political system was broken and would support a change in the voting system, Nick Clegg and his allies thought that it would be straightforward to secure a clear majority in favour of the Alternative Vote. I was one who feared that they might be right. But, when presented with an actual choice between a flawed status quo that they knew and understood, and a theoretical alternative that was full of uncertainty and risk, the voters plumped for the status quo – as, indeed, they usually do. At least in the case of AV, the voters were being offered a specific alternative. How much easier would it be for our opponents to get scare stories running about what would be involved in the vague promise of a new kind of European membership? And anyone who thinks that the British people are in the mood to sign blank cheques for the political classes to fill in as they see fit, hasn't been living in the same country as I have for the last three years.
It is also a big mistake to think that it makes sense to hold a referendum before the negotiation, if you want to improve a future Conservative Government's chances of securing substantial concessions from our European partners. In any negotiation, what is past and public is fully discounted. Everybody knows what happened and knows what it means. It becomes one of a great many facts that inform your assessment of the other party. Even if a pre-negotiation referendum produced a clear vote in favour a 'new relationship based on trade and cooperation', what would that do other than tell our European partners that the Government's approach to the negotiations enjoys strong popular support (which they can already find out from the opinion polls)? At what point in the negotiation would our position be transformed by reference to the vague aspiration endorsed in a referendum some time before?
The threat of a referendum in the future is quite a different matter. It is powerful because its result is uncertain and because everything that happens during the negotiation might influence the eventual outcome. If our European partners do not make enough concessions, ministers can warn them of the possibility that the British people will reject the new package and decide to leave the EU altogether. When negotiations reach deadlock, the Prime Minister can even hint at recommending such a vote, if he is not given a deal he can sell back home. It is the looming but unpredictable prospect of a referendum on the results of a renegotiation that will most strengthen our hand – not a vague expression of aspiration recorded before it gets underway.
I share my colleagues' frustration with the way that the European Union operates. Like them, I long for our relationship with Europe to be reformed. But we need to do things in the right order if we are to achieve our long term prize. First, we need to win an overall majority at the next election so that the British government can speak to our European partners with one, clear voice. Then, we should then get stuck in and negotiate a detailed package of reforms to put to the British people. Then, and only then, should we hold a referendum so that the British people have the final say on our country's future.