Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
In the privacy of the ballot box, I voted to stay in the European Union. Despite believing that the EU was undemocratic, I thought it was better for the UK to be part of an alliance of democracies in an uncertain world, especially with the rise of extreme Islamism and Putin’s Russia.
I was also called by Oliver Letwin a couple of days before we had to make the decision in Cabinet, who argued that genuine subsidiarity had been achieved. Given that I worked for Oliver for a number of years before I became an MP, I have never known him knowingly to mislead. I felt an obligation of trust and loyalty to him and the Government of which I was a member.
However, one thing I have been absolutely clear about from the moment the referendum result came in was that it was my duty to follow the democratic will of my constituents (68 per cent of whom voted to leave), and the wishes of the country. Since then, I have done everything possible to make sure that we do all we can to leave the EU.
The reason for this is clear. A failure to follow the wishes of the people will create a deficit of trust in our political system. I think in areas where there was strong majority to leave, it would mean support potentially for new parties – possibly of an unsavoury kind – because the public would feel their faith in the current political system had been misplaced.
People voted to leave the EU, not to remain in a smaller part of it – whether that be the Single Market or the Customs Union. They voted to leave the EU, not to have a second referendum. I am genuinely dismayed by the activities of some Remainers who seem to be doing everything possible to thwart the democratic will of the people.
So we come to the issue of our ‘divorce bill’ – of £40 billion. I find this particularly extraordinary for a number of reasons.
First, it is entirely wrong to call this a ‘divorce bill’. The fact is that Britain is leaving a club, of which there were benefits and subscriptions. Our country has given two years notice to make sure we have fulfilled any contractual obligations. When you leave a club in this way, it is not clear to me why we have to carry on paying subscriptions. We need to stop calling this a ‘divorce bill’ and start saying we are leaving a club.
Second, it is not clear why the UK has to give money to the EU at all. The House of Lords has said that we have no legal and financial obligations to Brussels.
Third, the money we appear to be offering seems to be going up at auction-house amounts. It started at £10 billion (which most would find acceptable). Then, in the Prime Minister’s Florence speech, we were told that it would be £20 billion. Now we hear the figure may be £40 or £50 billion with some reports even suggesting up to £90 billion. What are we getting in return for this?
Fourth, the Conservative argument since 2010 has been that given the state the last Labour Government left the economy, with the country on the verge of bankruptcy, we had to be the party of good housekeeping and take very tough decisions. The need for good housekeeping has had a significant impact in our communities up and down the country as we have successfully cut the deficit.
If we suddenly announced we have £40 billion for the EU, we undermine this argument. It suggests money can be found down the back of the Treasury sofa. This will make it very difficult to argue for good housekeeping at home.
Fifth, there is huge demand for spending on our public services. If there is £40 billion or more to be found, even in instalments, would it not be better to spend it on reducing income tax for the lowest paid, or on vital spending on our NHS or schools.
The Government must ensure trust in our democracy by following the wishes of the public by and leaving the EU. We also should make certain we have trust in our economy, too – and that when Conservatives make an economic case we keep to it. Boris Johnson was right when he said that the EU could whistle for a multi-billion post-membership payment.
The only caveat to all this is, of course, if it can be proved that giving £40 billion to the EU would mean a net benefit to the UK of many more billions of pounds. Otherwise, the UK should get back to the tough negotiating stance started by David Davis and the Prime Minister earlier in the negotiations: no deal is better than a bad deal.