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John Baron MP: Why is the Prime Minister taking so long to answer our European referendum letter?

Baron John  2John Baron MP is the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay and a Member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

In June, John Baron delivered a letter to No 10 co-signed by 100 Conservative MPs calling for an EU referendum. Two and a half months later, despite numerous prompts, there has still been no reply.

Why does anyone take a long time to respond to an important letter? Can it be that the answer is not known, that the recipient has not formed a view, or even that one’s opinion is changing?

I delivered the letter, co-signed by 100 Conservative MPs, on 27th June. It called upon the Prime Minister to place on the Statute Book a commitment to hold a referendum within the next Parliament on the nature of our relationship with the EU. David Cameron subsequently invited me to a meeting on 9th July to discuss the matter, during which we agreed to disagree, and he promised to reply. However, two and a half months later, and after multiple attempts to chase, we are still awaiting a reply.

The advantages of committing to a referendum now are numerous. It would address the very real lack of public trust when people hear politicians making promises – they remember Labour’s broken promises over the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty. Such a referendum would address this credibility gap. Promises or commitments made nearer election time, or in manifestos, risk being seen as election ploys.

I personally would like an in/out referendum as soon as possible. However, our letter was pragmatic in asking the Prime Minister to commit now for a referendum in the next Parliament. This would allow time for an informed debate as to the question to be asked, and for the Eurozone crisis to play out. It would also give time for any renegotiations to take place – after all, we have been promised a repatriation of powers. The proposal does not ‘corner’ the Prime Minister, but it would commit him to sticking to a promise important to many of us across the country.

The Prime Minister’s delay in responding is interesting, especially since he knows 100 Parliamentary colleagues are awaiting his reply. However, putting this in a wider context may offer some explanations.

It may be that our proposal has become somewhat more attractive given that the Prime Minister’s boundary changes now look dead in the water. Last week, piqued by the failure of Lords reform, Nick Clegg categorically stated Lib Dem MPs would vote against the Government’s proposals. These have always meant more to the Conservatives. The equalisation of seats was fair and, whilst I never believed it would deliver an extra 20 seats, would have resulted in some gains. This will now not happen.

By contrast, our proposal is not only right for the country, but could deliver electoral advantage to whichever party first made the commitment. UKIP held the balance of power in what should have been 20 Conservative seats at the last General Election. Early polling from Corby may also be revealing. But why vote UKIP when a major party will definitely deliver a referendum? It would shoot their fox overnight.

Another possibility is that the Prime Minister is privy to much worse economic news from the Eurozone. After all, the Government misjudged the speed of our recovery; it is therefore not impossible a similar misjudgement has been made about the Eurozone. 20 or so summits have been nothing more than sticking plasters which the markets are increasingly questioning.

No amount of moving the massive debt around the system – between banks and governments – can erode or conceal its extent. The solution is greater competitiveness and growth. But where are the supply-side reforms needed to foster this? And, if the Euro is heading for a disorderly breakup, an EU referendum suddenly becomes moot.

As for the politics of the EU, President Barroso said on Wednesday that the European Commission will begin work on a new treaty which will in effect create a ‘United States of Europe’. It has long been evident to many of us that one cannot have monetary union without fiscal union. The Euro is the key stepping stone on the road to political union. Barroso has now made clear the EU is moving into this phase. I suggest decision time for the UK is fast approaching. Perhaps the Prime Minister realises this too.

To help nudge the Prime Minister and the political establishment generally in the right direction, we are launching an All-Party Parliamentary Group for an EU Referendum. This group is open to all MPs and Peers, and aims to act as a rallying point in Parliament for those of us from all sides of the debate who nevertheless believe a fresh democratic mandate is required. Our inaugural meeting will take place on 16th October. I look forward to working with colleagues to give the British people a say on this crucial issue.

Meanwhile, I will continue pressing for a response to our letter!


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