A fortnight since his piece on ConHome musing on why the Prime Minister had not replied to his June EU referendum letter, John Baron MP writes after finally receiving a response. He is the MP for Billericay
Two weeks ago I reflected on why people put off responding to letters. Could it be, I asked, because they do not know the answer; have not formed a view; or are changing their position? It now looks as though the last of these applies to the Prime Minister.
This week I finally received the Prime Minister’s reply to my letter of 27th June, co-signed by 100 Conservative MPs. In the letter, we called upon the Prime Minister to place on the Statute Book a commitment to hold a referendum within the next Parliament on the nature of our relationship with the EU.
The contents of the Prime Minister's response is revealing: in it, he agrees that we need less Europe, not more. He also agrees that the EU is currently undergoing radical change, and that we now have the opportunity to change the status quo. He also talks of getting the "fresh consent of the British people" once a fresh deal becomes clear, following concerted efforts to change this status quo.
He rejects, however, our key proposal to make a legal commitment for a future referendum, arguing that without knowing the question, our proposition would not work, and that it would be difficult to construct the question until the landscape in Europe had settled.
The letter is delicately worded, but it suggests the Prime Minister has moved in our direction. It serves to crystallise the Prime Minister’s qualified comments in Brazil very recently about there being opportunities for fresh consent in the next Parliament. The letter makes clear he intends to get the fresh consent – the question is of timing and method.
In the past, the Prime Minister has always been careful not to rule out a referendum. This letter makes it clear that he has moved closer towards one. Of course, one can argue as to what "fresh consent" means – most people would take it as a referendum. Yet he didn’t use this term. This is a political turn of phrase to allow maximum room for manoeuvre. Further questions need to be asked.
I still disagree with the Prime Minister that a legal commitment now for a referendum in the next Parliament would not work. There are many upsides in committing to a referendum now – not least it would address the very real lack of public trust when people hear politicians making promises about the EU. Furthermore, the question has still yet to be finalised regarding the Scottish referendum in 2014.
Many Parliamentary colleagues and I will continue to press the Prime Minister on these points. As part of this, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for an EU Referendum is coming along apace – our first meeting is on 16th October.