John Redwood is the Conservative MP for Wokingham, and
Leader of the Conservative Policy Group on Economic Competitiveness.
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The local elections made clear that the public are now very concerned about the way the EU prevents us from doing as we wish. On concerns ranging widely from dear energy through inward migration to the inability to deport certain prisoners or to settle who should receive welfare benefits, electors have realised that the EU calls the shots. Many voters, who voted either Conservative or UKIP, now want their Ministers to get the powers they need to sort out the problems they experience.
The Coalition Government has been made to look impotent by the constant refusal to allow the extradition of terror suspects. Ministers have been unable to limit welfare eligibility as they would wish thanks to the interference of the European Court, at a time when many think benefit eligibility should be removed for recent arrivals until they have a decent record of contributions through National Insurance. Some Ministers do want a more rational energy policy which can keep the lights on and keep energy prices under control, but the EU’s renewable and carbon price regimes make that illegal.
So what should the government do to respond to these worries, now expressed so graphically in the ballot box? They need to tell our EU partners that the current EU relationship does not work for the UK and we want a new one, as Mr Cameron said in his most recent speech on the topic. They then need to hold a Mandate Referendum as soon as possible, to show the EU that this is the overwhelming view of the UK people. That should persuade the EU to negotiate a new relationship as a matter of urgency, as the EU partners will at last understand that Euroscepticism is not a minority creed in the UK, but the settled view of the vast majority. Most UK voters want their Ministers to be able to fix immigration, welfare, energy, foreign policy, criminal justice policy without being overridden by Brussels. If they fail to do so to the satisfaction of the voters, they want to be able to change the Ministers and find some who do as they wish. It’s called democracy.
It is no good the Government saying that it will just try a bit harder within the current broken framework. The odd power back here, the odd concession there will not be enough. The Mandate Referendum should ask: “Do you want the UK government to negotiate a new relationship with the EU based on trade and political co-ooperation?” I think 80% would vote Yes, giving the government a strong mandate to negotiate a sensible outcome. The result of the negotiation should also be put to the people, to decide whether to accept the new deal or simply leave. That way the EU has every reason to come up with something good, as Germany would not want to lose her lucrative trade with the UK.
If the Prime Minister understands the new mood of the nation he will see the latest election results as a huge opportunity. It could strengthen his hand with the Coalition and within Parliament. I do not believe this Parliament would dare vote down a Mandate referendum if Mr Cameron proposed it. The time is now. The window of opportunity will only last for a few weeks. Armed with the mandate of the UK voters, Mr Cameron would be a national leader seeking a better deal for all.