William Hague will address the Centre for Policy Studies at lunchtime today. He will warn that Gordon Brown’s failure to grant a referendum on the EU treaty is a breach of trust that is dangerous for faith in the whole political system:
"An overwhelming majority of the British people want a referendum, more than eighty per cent in one recent poll. The TUC have voted for a referendum and the Prime Minister is faced with growing calls for one from his backbenches, including two former Europe ministers. This is not an issue that is going to go away, nor should it. As Northern Rock has lately shown in a textbook example, every system of human interaction is ultimately based on trust. If that trust goes the system will break down. The way Gordon Brown has disregarded his promise of a referendum is a dangerous thing for politics as a whole. That is why the Conservative Party is not afraid of addressing this matter. It is too important to be nodded through on the sly. Because it goes to the heart of the questions of trust, accountability and the health of our democracy. If that is an old agenda then the politics of disenchantment will only worsen. It is, in fact, at the heart of a central agenda for Britain today: to restore the health of our democracy."
Earlier today David Cameron emailed Tory activists across the country with an encouragement to sign the IWantAReferendum petition. Of the Treaty he wrote:
"The fact is that the new Treaty is basically the same as the Constitution and it means giving away more powers to the EU. It would create a new EU president and lead to the loss of at least 60 of our national vetoes. It gives the EU the power to make treaties and introduces a new ratchet clause that would make it easier for the EU to taken on even more powers in the future."
Samuel Coates was at the event and has provided additional reporting below…
Hague got the first of several laughs when introducing the speech saying that normally parties are quiet when one of the other parties is having another conference, but as there was "nothing of interest at all" in the LibDem one he thought he’d better say something (hold the press – I’ve just seen on the news that they’ve had a vote on food packaging!). He also spoke of "the strange case of Ming Campbell" who is "helping his old friend Gordon" out by taking "three completely positions on a question of national importance within a week", an achievement "even by the standards of the Liberal Democrats". These digs made even the media chuckle.
The headline theme was that political disengagement in this country is as a result of decision-making powers being spread unaccountably across quangos, different levels of Government and international institutions, something even the Power Inquiry recognised. From this premise, Hague attacked Brown for exacerbating this lack of trust in the political process by his "bizarre" and "baffling" breaking of the promise for a referendum.
Hague outlined some specific remedies to the EU’s "democratic disconnection" that could be implemented in Parliament:
- Acting on Theresa May’s proposals for a powerful new European Scrutiny Committee in Parliament modelled on the Danish Europaudvalge
- Making the Scrutiny Reserve statutory so Ministers can’t dodge the ESC like they have 346 times since 2001
- Setting a fixed timetable for scrutiny of EU legislation so the ESC and even Select Committees have sufficient time
- Changing the Standing Orders of the House so that a "substantial minority" of MPs can force a vote on any EU measure considered by the ESC
- Introducing Oral Parliamentary Questions directly to the Minister of Europe
The only line of attack against the party’s position with any potency is to dismiss it as "lurching to the right" in reaction to bad opinion polls. The BBC’s Carole Walker did try this tired line but Hague rightly rubbished the link between the polls and his speech. In an echo of Cameron’s false choice speech one of the first things he said was that concern about the growing power of the EU is "not a soley Conservative concern", as Labour’s Tony Wright has said:
"Even for someone who is well-disposed towards the European Union, there is no question that there are huge democratic issues associated with it and, whatever we might say, we know that the idea of democratic Europe is not really one that we can sustain."
There wasn’t anything new in
terms of substance in the speech but it was a convincing speech that pulled together a number of
damning quotes about the constitution and provided a useful summary of why we should have the opportunity to vote against it. It’s clear that Hague (the Chief Whip has apparently asked MPs to leave all the talking on this to him) is going to keep running with this issue as it really puts Brown into a corner. Expect more at conference.