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Mark Francois: Let the people decide

Francois Shadow Europe Minister Mark Francois makes the case for a referendum.

Mark Francois: This has been a debate about broken promises. First, the Government promised a referendum. Then, in lieu of a referendum, they promised the House of Commons 20 days of detailed parliamentary debate. Then they broke that promise, and allocated only 14 days—less than half the number given to debate the treaty of Maastricht. Then they broke that promise. They told us that we would give the Bill line-by-line scrutiny, but they so manipulated the debate that the detailed scrutiny of the amendments was left until the end of the day, and large groups of amendments were not debated at all, including critical amendments on borders, visas, immigration, asylum, defence, social policy and the free movement of workers. None of those provisions was subjected to line-by-line scrutiny at all, yet such scrutiny was the Government’s main excuse for not granting a referendum in the first place.

I turn first to the Foreign Secretary’s speech. At the risk of being ungallant to him, I must say that he did not have a very good day. First, he tried to argue that the Government had originally promised a referendum on the EU constitution because it represented fundamental changes to our relationship with the European Union. Then, when he was pressed further, the right hon. Gentleman said that it did not represent a fundamental change in our relationship with the EU. Taking interventions from all sides, he completely dropped the ball when he said that the reason why the Government promised a referendum in the first was that they needed to “clear the air”. Well, if we needed to clear the air then, why do we not clear the air now and give the people of this country the referendum that they were promised? If that is the only argument that the Foreign Secretary can put to the House, I look forward to the rapid promotion of the Minister for Europe.

Let me turn now to deal with those parliamentary statesmen, the Liberal Democrats, who are planning, I am told—with some honourable exceptions—to abstain constructively. They have no mandate for an in-out referendum in their 2005 manifesto, which promised a referendum on the EU constitution and gave no promise on an in-out referendum. They are arguing a case to paper over the cracks in their policies without any endorsement from the people who sent them to this House of Commons. That is the mess that they find themselves in. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made the point about the missing cojones—and I have to say that, at the end of this debate, they have still not been discovered. The Government lost a pair of discs; the Liberal Democrats lost a pair of something else—and they have not yet been found.

Tonight we are taking an important decision for our country, so what are the Liberal Democrats going to do? What is the party of Lloyd George, Asquith and Gladstone going to do tonight when the future of our country is in the balance? They are going to go and hide in the toilets because they do not have the guts to vote on the question either one way or the other! And it is the Liberal Democrats who promise us a new politics, a politics of change. If that is all they have to offer, they should go back to the starting board and start again.

The two documents are the same. The Council mandate of the intergovernmental conference 2004 brought forward almost all the same innovations. That is how it was done. The European Scrutiny Committee said that the two were substantially equivalent and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing summed it up perfectly when he said:

“Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly... All the earlier proposals will be in the new text, but will be hidden and disguised in some way.”

In the latest poll, 88 per cent. of the British people wanted a referendum. This House collectively, and all parties, gave their word that they would have it. We dishonour this place if we do not keep that promise. We say: let the promise be kept, let the question be put, let the Commons retain its honour in the eyes of the public, and let the people decide."


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