John Baron MP: Let's place legislation on the Statute Book in this Parliament for a referendum in the next
If six months ago I had told you the Prime Minister was shortly going to offer the country an in/out referendum on our EU membership, you would not have believed me.
We have travelled a long way since then. Many of us have contributed to the journey, and I thank my 100 back bench colleagues who signed our letter in June.
On the Conservative benches, the speech has been met with universal acclaim, for it is in the country’s interest. It will also be welcomed by the British electorate, as I hope opinion polls will confirm. However, there is one further step the Prime Minister should take which would cement this achievement.
The letter we sent the Prime Minister in June called upon the Government to place legislation on the Statute Book in this Parliament for a referendum in the next. There are good reasons for passing enabling legislation this side of the General Election. Whilst not doubting the Prime Minister’s sincerity, the British public tend to be cynical when they hear promises being made by politicians about Europe. Too many have been broken about EU referenda. They remember Tony Blair’s promise about the EU Constitution and the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 manifesto. None of which have come to anything.
I see few downsides in putting legislation in front of Parliament as soon as practically possible – the Prime Minister indicated it was already being drafted. Furthermore, it would force Labour to come off the fence on the referendum issue. If they and the Liberals voted it down, their position would be laid bare for all to see. Voters would know that they would have to vote Conservative to get their referendum.
Finally, we should not listen to Labour and Liberal cries that uncertainty over a referendum will harm business. Many business organisations and leaders have come out in support of the Prime Minister’s position. They want a loser relationship with the EU, based on trade and the Single Market rather than politics and bureaucracy. They know that we run a massive trade deficit with the EU: the EU exports more to the UK than to the US and China combined. They know they need us more than we need them, and so logic suggests the EU will offer flexibility. Let us hope so, but at least by 2017 the ‘in’ position will be clarified.