Tomorrow we will debate what is rapidly becoming known as the ‘Hokey Cokey Motion’: a request for a referendum to decide whether we should be in, out, or shake it all about as far as our membership of the European Union is concerned. The danger for the government, and the party leadership, is not that it will lose the vote tomorrow, but rather that it will not learn any lessons from the last few days.
The government is helped by the fact that Motion has no internal logic; a victim of its own contortionism. Rather than call for a simple in/ out referendum, a third option is requested: ‘re-negotiate the terms of [Britain’s] membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation’. This is quite plainly an impossible question to put; what would happen should 40 per cent vote to leave, 30 per cent vote for the status quo, and 30 per cent for a renegotiated relationship? Yet not only could it produce a result impossible to implement, it would be unacceptable to the Electoral Commission which must surely demand a fourth option to balance the third – that of greater integration. Needless to say, this would not improve the chances of a decisive outcome.
So what about the simplest option of all, which, it is hardly incidental to note, was not part of our manifesto? A referendum which asks the British people whether they want to leave the European Union or remain a part of it is perhaps the only European question that would solicit a positive (in) response from a eurosceptic, but not europhobic electorate. Knowledge of the answer is not in itself a reason to refuse to ask the question, but one should reflect that it is the inevitable losers of such a referendum who are driving tomorrow's Motion forward, signing the peoples pledge and Downing Street petitions. A resounding ‘in’ vote would hardly advance the cause of Euroscepticism, so what is the motivation? What, more importantly, is to be gained?
The exasperation with the EU which some of my constituents have expressed to me has generally been born of the fact that the EU is not the EEC. There is a sense that we have drifted, or rather been hoodwinked, into something to which we have not agreed, but demands for withdrawal from a position of resolute isolationism have been thin on the ground. There is also the growing feeling amongst those I represent that the EU is completely out of touch with reality. What is its vision for growth and jobs? Does anyone actually believe that any of the very expensive sticking plasters we are currently slapping on the Eurozone crisis are going to resolve it? Or find it inexplicable that the only things that might do so appear solely to be being discussed in the Op Ed columns of national newspapers? William Hague argued, this weekend, that there is some good to come from Europe, and I too am delighted that directive 2009/147/EC prevents the slaughter of migratory garden birds, but any good you care to name, including any influence we have on the world stage, could be achieved without the mass of ills that have come with it.
The British people are pragmatists: they understand the relevance of the EU to our country and their lives, but they have had enough of the European project. The Conservative Party is not at odds with that sentiment. The Conservative Party does not want to integrate further with our European partners: indeed, we see the advantages presented by a good deal less integration than we have at present. The Conservative Party believes in expanding our trade, in the freedom of our people to buy, sell and travel as they will. The Conservative Party does not like the unelected, expensive and unaccountable bureaucracy of Europe. As John Redwood has said, “there is probably overwhelming majority support amongst Conservatives in an unwhipped vote for a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.”
If tomorrow’s Motion were simply to call for a such a new relationship I would be the first Member in the ‘Aye’ lobby; but it is not, and it will avail us of nothing. I have sympathy for George Eustice’s amendment which called for the government to “set out the powers and competences that the Government would seek to repatriate from the EU, to commence a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU and to put the outcome of those negotiations to a national referendum,” not least because it would have been a practical step in actually achieving something. I am hopeful that tomorrow's debate might give such a wish-list an airing, but as a convinced eurosceptic and advocate of reform I am deeply unsatisfied with the motion for debate and will therefore be voting “no” tomorrow.
The irony is that while John Redwood is right- there is consensus and unity in the party for a renegotiation of our relationship – we seem incapable of getting our act together, and are allowing our opponents to paint us as divided. It is because our MPs have not had a clearly articulated strategy and timetable for reform from the leadership that they are seeking to make their own. We should be seizing the opportunity we have, harnessing the talent and enthusiasm of all our MPs to this cause; the communications skills and leadership of the likes of Raab, Patel, Heaton-Harris, Leadsom and Eustice, the expertise and diligence of Redwood, Bone and, yes even, Mr Bill Cash; and the good will that exists throughout the whole parliamentary party by communicating clearly the opportunities, priorities and objectives for reform to Party and Country.
Some commentators will argue that this whole episode has been damaging to the Party; that we have sustained injury through “friendly fire” due to poor tactics on Parliament’s part, and a limp response from the leadership that has missed the opportunity to communicate any such plan to its troops. To date the opportunity has been missed; the whips can hardly tish at the rebels’ determination and exasperation when appeals to them to remain loyal have focused on technical objections to motions tabled and to their unfavourable timing. What about the central issue? There is a vacuum where the Governments plans and activity for reform should be, and unless it addresses this there will be further grief ahead.
However the opportunity has not entirely passed. Good can come of it if the debate is of quality and taken as a wake-up call to our party and its leadership to act on the wishes of its parliamentarians and, more importantly, the people of this country. I would cite Libya as a recent example of what our Prime Minister has achieved while holding (at the time) a minority view on the international stage, against massive odds, with resolve, determination and a clear, sound strategy. I believe that if we show the same leadership on this issue the ambitions of both our MPs and the British people can be achieved. As John Major recently said, our hand has hardly ever been stronger, so let’s just get on with it and negotiate a better deal.