I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is an honour to introduce a Bill that has at its heart the heart of our democracy. Power should reside with the people. In introducing the Bill, I speak for many in the House, but I speak for millions more outside the House.
It is regrettable that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is not in the Chamber. Has my hon. Friend received representations from the leader of the Labour party, Len McCluskey, on what he thinks the position of the Labour party should be on this important issue?
I thank my hon. Friend for that ingenious intervention. I have not yet heard from Mr McCluskey, but I am sure that when the Labour party has decided what its position is on giving the British people a say on our relationship with the European Union it will let us know. In introducing the Bill, as I said, I speak for many in the Chamber and for many millions outside. It was in 1975 that a Labour Government gave the British people a say on our membership of the then European Community. How things have changed: politics has moved on, and the European Union has moved on.
In 1971, I voted against the then Common Market, and I voted for a referendum in 1975. Sadly, the country did not follow my advice, or we would not be doing what we are doing today. However, the Bill is deficient in one respect: it does not ask for a referendum until 2017. What we need is a referendum before the next election. Will the hon. Gentleman give that guarantee?
For the first time, I find myself agreeing with at least part of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I wish more people had listened to him in 1975, and I am sorry that they are not going to do so now.
As I shall come on to explore, it is important that we secure the best possible deal from the European Union and put a real choice to the British people. It is sensible that we set a time frame within which that must be done. That is what the Bill does, and that is why I have introduced it.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Secondly, I totally agree that—and I think he will probably explore this—it is important that this will reinforce the hand of our marvellous Prime Minister in negotiations with Europe, and then give the public a say. The public deserve a say.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about giving the public a real say—a real choice between the best possible deal that we can get from the European Union and, if the public so choose, leaving it, if that is what they want to do. That is what we on this side are offering the British public: I think that Members on the other side should consider their position very carefully indeed, because at the next election the public will not forgive Members who do not trust them.
The first time I voted was in 1974. My son and daughter have never had the opportunity to make that democratic decision. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is what we should be doing today? That is why I sponsored my hon. Friend’s Bill.
My hon. Friend will be staggered, I am sure, to find that of course I agree with him. But what matters is not that I agree with him; it is that the people who are watching this debate, who care about the issue, who want to have their say—the great British people—agree with him. They will make their views very clear, come the next election.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important reasons for the Bill has already been mentioned—that a whole generation has not had a chance to have a say? But there is a second reason, which is that the EU is a fundamentally different creature from the one on which we voted in 1975, and it is on that issue that the country must have a say.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is making his points more usefully than some of his Whips have done so far—[Interruption] but is he aware of the fact—[Interruption.] Tory Members should calm down. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that 40% of UK exports go to the EU tariff-free, and that business leaders in this country have said that it would be dangerously destabilising if a referendum were to go ahead. Does he think—[Interruption.]
Order. There needs to be rather more calm in the Chamber. Interventions need to be shorter. I should point out that well over 40 colleagues want to speak. I want all of them to do so. They have an interest in minimising the noise level and maximising the progress. I call Mr Gordon Marsden—briefly.
The hon. Gentleman read his intervention very well, but the British people deserve a say and they deserve to be given a real choice. They should be given a choice between the best possible relationship with the European Union that we can offer, and leaving.
The hon. Gentleman has done a great job in coming up with this idea for a Bill, but has he had an opportunity to talk to representatives from our territory of Gibraltar about the impact on them and whether he plans to give them a say in the referendum?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Despite being a young and new MP, as I am, he knows very well that parliamentary procedure is one of the greatest challenges that the Bill will face. Were it a large and complex Bill, it would be easier for him and his colleagues to slow its progress and wreck the chances of it getting through and delivering what the British people want. So although I hear what he says and I know he is deeply concerned about anything that will allow him at a later stage, should the Bill go forward today, to slow it down and bog it down in parliamentary procedure, I hope he will resist the temptation and allow us to get it through so that his constituents and mine can vote whichever way they want and have their choice and their say on such a fundamental issue.
We have already discussed the fact that the European Community is not the same as the European Union. What we joined has changed. Those who voted yes in 1975 believed that they had bought a ticket to a clear and certain destination—to a free trade area that would benefit Britain’s economy without undermining our sovereignty. They did not buy a ticket for a never-ending journey to ever-closer union, destination unknown.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on this excellent Bill. Does he agree that we have heard from many businesses in the form of Business for Britain, who have said that businesses in this country also want to see the terms of our membership of the EU renegotiated? They also believe that finally giving the public a vote on this massive issue will create more stability than there is at present.
My hon. Friend is right. There are hundreds of businesses that support the campaign for a say on our membership of the European Union. An important point about the Bill, which I should make clear to Members on all sides, is that I am not arguing today that we should be in or that we should be out. I am putting forward an argument that we should trust the British people to make that decision and have a say.
I regret that I disagree with my hon. Friend. He is wrong to say that the Opposition have not made up their mind. They are quite clear: they do not believe in a referendum, they do not believe in renegotiating in Europe to get a better deal for this country, and most of all—they have made this absolutely clear—they do not believe in giving the British people a say.
I am the eternal optimist. It may appear that the Opposition are united against the British people in refusing them a chance to have their say, but I do not believe that is true. I believe that at least a substantial number of them are split. They know that the people need to have a say on this important issue and even though their leader has chosen not to be here and lead them today, I hope he will summon up the strength in the future to take a firm position and will back the Bill.
When we joined the European communion—[Laughter]—the European Community, it certainly was that. We thought we were joining a union that would increase economic prosperity and give even greater political stability. We cannot now say that to new members, given the economic problems within the European Community. As things are going on in not far distant countries, after their next elections there will probably be serious fascist representation in France, in Spain and in Italy. Is it not just in the interests of this country for the Prime Minister seriously to renegotiate, but in the interests of the whole of Europe?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. We are talking about a European Union that is changing before our eyes. No one knows where it will be in a few years. It is the right approach that rather than rush headlong now to make a decision, we should negotiate to get the right deal and to understand what future membership of the European Union would mean. Whatever the result of that process and whatever our understanding might be, ultimately it must be put to the British people so that they can choose whether to renew their consent to membership or to withdraw it. That is what we must do and why we are here today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate today. Neither he nor I was alive at the time of the last referendum on the EU, and we are now sitting here in the House as MPs. Does he agree that it is high time that our generation had a say on our membership of the European Union?
My hon. Friend is right. We have generations of people who have not had a say and we have generations of people who, when they had their say, voted for something which is not what exists today. Taken together, the changes that we have seen to the European Union and the length of time since the British people gave their consent in that original vote are significant. They make the case for a fresh referendum an obvious one and one that should be supported. The times have changed, the European Union has changed, and public sentiment has changed. It is time we had a referendum, it is time we gave people a choice, and that is why we are here.
I voted enthusiastically yes in the ’70s and I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would not vote yes in any future referendum. Why do we need this Bill when we have already legislated for a referendum anyway, and when I hope the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, like mine, believe that the priorities are jobs and growth and investment, not putting the whole of the European investment links at risk for the next few years?
It never ceases to amaze me—I hope my colleagues on the Government Benches will allow me this indulgence—how the Liberal Democrats change their position as the wind blows. On this important matter Liberal Democrat MPs campaigned at the last election to offer the British people a referendum. They have now changed their mind because it looks a real prospect. I hope that they may change their mind again and agree with what some of us are trying to achieve.
Following on from the comments of the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), it must be made clear that the Bill is not put forward just by those who are inherently Eurosceptic. There are many of us who campaigned vigorously in the 1975 referendum for our entry into the European—
I apologise, Mr Speaker. There are many of us who campaigned for yes to Britain in the 1975 referendum campaign, but to paraphrase Goethe, that which thy forefathers bequeath thee, one must earn anew if one wants to possess it. There comes a point where one has to demonstrate the wholehearted consent of the British people to our membership of the European Union if it is to be valid for us and for them and, importantly, for the whole of the European Community.
I want to make a little more progress, if I may.
We know that the European Union has changed from the European Community that was voted on in 1975. We know that generations did not get a choice. But what of the question of having a referendum itself? This was once seen to be alien to the British political system. It was not what we did. Well, I would contend that we live in the age of the referendum. We have had referendums on whether Scotland should have its Parliament and whether Wales should have its Assembly, and on the alternative vote. We had a referendum on whether we should have a regional assembly for the north-east of England, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) came up to the north-east and campaigned in that referendum. He campaigned against and he was remarkably successful. I would like to give him the chance to campaign in a referendum again, not on an issue of regional government, but on one of national Government that affects us all.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for his excellent Bill. Which does he think the British public will trust—the last Government who refused to give us a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, or this Government who have vetoed an EU treaty, cut the EU budget, passed legislation on EU sovereignty and given us an in/out referendum?
My hon. Friend makes an important and valid observation. It appears that the Leader of the Opposition does not even trust his own party, because he cannot lead them one way or the other on this important matter, but he has ordered them to run away from the debate.
The hon. Lady is of course right. We know that the majority of people in this country want a referendum. I would extend to her on this issue the hand of cross-party co-operation and friendship, and to any of her colleagues who would like to join in what we are trying to do to deliver that, not just for Labour voters, not just for Conservative voters, but for everyone, whether they believe that we should be in European Union or should leave it.
On the subject of cross-party activities, I was keen to follow the example of Margaret Thatcher in 1975 and vote enthusiastically for Europe, and I would do so again. However, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the late Baroness Thatcher happily quoted Clement Attlee’s comment that referendums are devices of demagogues and dictators.
I had forgotten the hon. Gentleman’s record of having voted against every referendum brought forward by the previous Government. It had slipped my mind that he had such a distinguished and principled position on this matter. However, we must also recognise that things change, which is why in my earlier comments, not long into my speech today, I said that we are in the age of the referendum. We have had so many referendums on so many things. It would seem farcical then to try to deny the referendum on such an important thing that matters to so many people.
Thanks to that well known source of information Guido Fawkes we have here the Labour party briefing, which says:
“Labour does not support this Bill...This is a Conservative Party Bill that sets out the Tory Party’s position—which we are opposed to.”
It may help my hon. Friend, who is doing a wonderful job here, if I could just refer to something that was put out by the Liberal Democrats at the last election, which said that the reason for giving a real referendum was that it was over 30 years since the British people last voted, and although they wanted to campaign to stay in, they firmly believed that length of time justified having the referendum.
I thank my hon. Friend. That leads me neatly on to my next point, which is that I have no objection in a referendum to those who would want to campaign to stay in, just as I could have no objection to those who would want to fight to come out. I do wonder, though, at a democratically elected Member of Parliament who would seek to deny the British people that choice. That is the fundamental area of disagreement, and beyond that I am sure we can reach across parties to find agreement and deliver a Bill that is so important and long overdue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on this excellent Bill. I have just learned that the leader of the Labour party has apparently cancelled an engagement today and he is not in the House. Does my hon. Friend think that he is sitting at home Buddha-like, contemplating whether to give the British people a say?
The Buddha-like qualities of the Leader of the Opposition are well-known of late. However, I would not choose to speculate on what he is doing. It may be something to do with the unions, it may be something to do with the television; it certainly is not something to do with leading his party in the right direction.
A majority of my constituents appear to agree with me rather than with the Prime Minister that the problem with Europe is that there is too much labour market flexibility, and that people are coming in and taking jobs here. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me and my constituents that in the renegotiations we need to remove this labour market flexibility in Europe, or does he agree with the Prime Minister that what is needed in renegotiation is more free flow of labour?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman sees the value in a renegotiation and in getting a new deal. We may disagree on what that deal should look like, but his support is much appreciated, and I hope that he will back the Bill so that he can campaign for it when we get it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward the Bill. Does he agree that at its heart lies the issue of trust? That is what this is about. The parties that trust the British people will support this, and the parties that do not trust the British people will not support it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Europe is in a very volatile state at the moment? The eurozone is in an even more volatile state. Between now and 2017 there will be vigorous negotiations to try to repatriate powers that are best used in our own country. By 2017 the public will be able to see whether those negotiations have been successful and to make an informed decision.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That takes us to one of the key points about the Bill: it makes provision for a referendum by the end of 2017. I believe that it is right that we should look to secure that better deal, that we should go to Europe and negotiate a better settlement that is more suited to the British interest. I believe that is possible. There are those who say that it cannot be done, but I believe that in reality the Germans will want to continue selling us cars and the French will want to continue selling us wine, just as much as we will want to continue trading with them. I think that a deal can be achieved and that it could be a great improvement.
As I was explaining, I believe that we need to put a real choice before the British people: either the best possible Europe we can get or coming out, if that is what they choose. I believe that that can be delivered, that we can return powers, renegotiate and get a better deal, but I also think that it would be to cheat the British people to deprive them of the opportunity to benefit from that better deal. This is about serious politics and delivering a real choice, not just playing party political games, as some Members seem keen to do.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward the Bill. He talks about serious politics. Does he agree that Members on the Opposition Benches, and indeed some sitting just below us, say one thing in this Chamber and another in their constituencies, demonstrating that they are not serious politicians, that they are not serious about a Bill, and that it is only us who will ensure that this happens?
Again, I will endeavour to be generous in my interpretation, excluding our Liberal Democrat colleagues, who often say one thing in one place and another somewhere else. Opposition Members are not consistent within their party, but I am sure that they are consistent as individuals. The truth is that the Labour party is split down the middle on this issue, because it knows that the British people want and deserve a say, but its leader is too weak to lead and refuses to offer it direction.
Does my hon. Friend share my shock at the way the Bill has been mocked by Opposition Members—there are one or two honourable exceptions—the people who are supposed to represent the very communities, such as mine in Goole, that have been most affected by uncontrolled EU immigration and by our membership of the EU? It is those people who want a say, and it is those people whom Opposition Members are mocking today.
My hon. Friend makes the important point—the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) alluded to this earlier—that as many Labour voters want the Bill to succeed as do Conservative voters. This matters across the political divide, which is why I welcome those hon. Members, from whatever party, who have said that they support what we are trying to do, and I am grateful to the Prime Minister and the Conservative party leadership for getting full square behind what we are trying to do. I think that this is something that unites the nation in agreement: we trust the British people and want to give them a voice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous in giving way. On the matters of substance referred to by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), will he make clear his position on whether the EU has gone too far in protecting the employment rights of workers in his constituency and mine?
I believe that more of what is done by the EU should be done by this Parliament and by the British people. It should be for the British people to decide what they want to be legislated on, who they want to support and who they want their Government to be.
For many years, and under different parties, our leaders have disappeared into Europe, only to return to this House to present their failures or successes, and whatever happens is invariably presented as a success. This House has had its say on those measures, but the British people have not been given a say in over a generation. I think that it is time they were given a say. I want a British Prime Minister who goes to Europe to negotiate not simply in order to come back to this House and present what they have done, but to present what they have done for the British people so that they can finally decide.
I absolutely support my hon. Friend, who is doing a massive service not only to Parliament, but to the country as a whole. May I suggest one improvement to the Bill that I think would find favour with the Prime Minister? It relates to a question I asked him recently. If the British people voted in a referendum to come out of the European Union, is it my hon. Friend’s intention that that should be that, so we would not have the usual European Union tactic of having yet more referendums until they get the result they want? Perhaps it would be better to make it clear in the Bill that if the British people voted to come out of the European Union, that would be that.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention and have no doubt at all that whoever is Prime Minister at the time—I am confident that it will be the current Prime Minister—would be unable to defy a vote of the British people in a free and fair election with a proper debate. If the British people voted to come out, I am sure that that would happen. I am conscious, however—this point was made earlier—that this is a private Member’s Bill and so has limited time. Any amendments or changes, or anything that lengthens our considerations, will give the minority of Members who wish to wreck it, not by force of democratic argument, but by misuse of parliamentary procedure, too much opportunity to do so. I would therefore resist further amendments, but I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend’s important comment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what irks the people of this nation more than anything else is the democratic deficit that exists in the EU, and that deficit has grown time after time as a result of the treaties that Labour Members signed up to? His Bill will remedy that democratic deficit by giving the British people trust?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. All of us in this place know that the great British public’s level of trust in politicians of all parties is not at its highest level. We need to restore that trust by engaging with them and giving them that choice—
It is. In answer to an earlier intervention, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) said that Members of this House who propose amendments to the Bill would be misusing parliamentary procedure; he said that to do so would be a “misuse.” I seek clarification, Mr Speaker: would it not be perfectly in order for any Member of this House to propose many amendments to the Bill if it gets a Second Reading?
The situation the hon. Gentleman describes in his point of order will arise if the Bill gets a Second Reading. I heard what the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) said and think, if I may say so—and I may—that it is a point of debate. The hon. Gentleman was making a point of debate to which others can respond if they wish.
Many hon. Members in this place have made the case and raised their concerns about our relationship with the European Union over many years. I am pleased to stand here today and speak for them, for those who have dedicated countless hours to pursuing the cause of democracy in holding the European Union and our relationship with it to account. However, I am bringing forward this private Member’s Bill not just for me, the Conservative party and my colleagues: I am bringing it forward for the people as a whole. I therefore hope that we can drive it forward and make it a success.
There seems to be a tendency for trust in the people to wane when a party gets into government. Given that a private Member’s Bill is a rather precocious creature that could easily be killed, if this is so important and if the Conservative party trusts the people, why can we not have that trust expressed before 2015, rather than waiting until 2017?
Of course, one of the challenges the Bill faces—and it is the reason it is a private Member’s Bill—and the reality of the parliamentary dynamic that the hon. Lady observes exists, is that the Government include not just Conservative Members, but Liberal Democrats, who have gone back on their manifesto pledge, do not want to support it and, sadly, despite my best efforts to persuade them, will not yet give it Government time.
My hon. Friend has a consistent and principled track record on this matter that I am sure this House recognises and appreciates. He makes a helpful contribution that reminds us of the historical reality within which we are operating. Over the years, many Members have warned us about what was happening in the European Union, yet those warnings have not always been heeded.
This Bill is about making good the central promise of our democracy: that we are the servants of the people and not their masters. We want to give the people a voice. I was born in Stockton-on-Tees, a town that I am now proud to represent in this place. I am also proud to be presenting this Bill, which will give not just the people of Stockton but the people of the United Kingdom—[Interruption.]
I am proud to represent the people of Stockton in this matter, but also the people of this country as a whole. It is about time we gave those millions of British people who want a say the chance to do so—from Stockton and beyond. This Bill would legislate for that and give them confidence that they will get their say and that it will be at the right time and in the right way. We have a chance to give the British people a voice through this Bill, and I commend it to the House.
Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) on achieving first place in the ballot and on introducing this Bill.
Any judgment about an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has to be based on what is in the national interest. We do not believe that an in/out referendum in 2017, as anticipated in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, is in the national interest. The Bill reflects an arbitrary date unrelated to the likely timetable of major treaty change, it represents an unrealistic and uncertain negotiating strategy, and it is brought forward by a party divided between those seeking consent and those seeking exit.
I will give way in a moment or two, but let me make a little progress.
Only this week, the hon. Member for Stockton South faced criticism from none other than one of his own Conservative councillors, who called it
“a cynical, pointless stunt, nothing more”.
The Conservative councillor for Yarm and Kirklevington went on to say:
“I think it should have been something to get the economy moving or to speed up help to get women into work.”
I could not have put it better myself.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman and his party must accept some responsibility for this uncertainty. In 2012 they cheated the British public with a tidying-up exercise on the Lisbon treaty, and now, again, there has been a broken contract with the British public. This Bill is a full contract with the British public that they have confidence in. I hope that he would at least go back and establish a bit of trust with the public on this matter.
Let me keep going and make a little progress.
Let us get to the nub of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Stockton South about why this Bill is before the House today. The Bill is not being debated because Conservative Back Benchers trust the public; it is being debated because Conservative Back Benchers do not trust the Prime Minister. That is the reality.
Can the shadow Foreign Secretary explain why he believes that a Scottish independence referendum is not in the national interest but voted for the Bill to allow it to happen, yet believes that this Bill is not in the national interest and will not vote for it to become law? Where is the consistency there? He is saying that it is good enough for the people of Scotland to have a referendum but not good enough for the rest of the country.
Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman with his understanding of devolution and, indeed, democracy. The last time I checked, there was an election in Scotland in 2010 that resulted in the Scottish National party, which had committed to a referendum in its manifesto, securing a majority in the Scottish Parliament. By contrast, not one of the principal political parties that stood at the last general election in the United Kingdom and secured representation in this House advanced what is proposed in this Bill. There is a fundamental difference because a majority was secured in the Scottish Parliament.
We have maintained our position that any judgment in relation to an in/out referendum has to be based on the national interest. Our judgment is that the national interest is not served by this Bill, and that is why we do not support it. If there is a leader of a political party who has changed his position on a referendum, I think I am looking at him right now.
I am keen to make a little progress, and then I will happily take further interventions.
I just mentioned the Prime Minister, so let us remember how far he has travelled. This is what he said at the Conservative party conference when he became leader:
“For too long, we were having a different conversation. Instead of talking about the things that most people care about, we talked about what we cared about most. While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life—we were banging on about Europe.”
Three years into government, this is a Conservative party still banging on about Europe—a party talking to itself and not to the country.
Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House an indication of what a Labour Government would do, were this country to have the misfortune of him and his colleagues assuming power in 2015, if this Bill becomes law, which the British people want, and many of his hon. Friends want, as well as us? Will he undertake that they will not seek to repeal legislation passed today?
Many people who have advocated the position taken in this Bill have argued in the past that, given the sovereignty of Westminster, no Parliament can bind its successor. There are a number of stages of scrutiny that the Bill needs to go through, so it is a little presumptuous to presume that it will reach the statute book today.
Let me try to make a little progress.
For many years, Conservatives have argued for national Parliaments to have a greater say in European affairs, yet since 1997 all previous Bills that legislated for referendums that actually took place have had their stages debated on the Floor of the House, including a Committee of the whole House. Instead of that, with this private Member’s Bill the Conservatives are apparently planning to try to cut short the time that we have to debate it. It seems that the Government are willing to let it progress without going through these vital stages. That should be a matter of regret for all Members who continually assert the importance and sovereignty of Westminster.
I had better try to make a little progress.
No doubt when the Foreign Secretary gets to his feet in a few moments’ time he will make a characteristically witty and engaging speech; there is certainly material available to him. However, we all know that he has been drawn into supporting this Bill out of weakness, not strength. In November 2011, he argued that committing then to an in/out referendum would put the economy at risk, undermine jobs and growth, and compromise vital British interests. This is what he said on that occasion—
I think it is important that hon. Gentlemen listen so that they understand where their Front Benchers were then and so that we might understand where they have ended up.
In November 2011, the Foreign Secretary said:
“a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, especially at this time of profound economic uncertainty, is not the answer.”
At that time, he also said at the Dispatch Box:
“The deficits of recent years, and the slowness of growth in all western economies, make this a difficult and uncertain time for many individuals and firms. The eurozone is clearly in crisis, and to pile on that uncertainty the further uncertainty of a referendum on leaving the European Union, when half the foreign direct investment into Britain comes from the rest of the European Union, and half our exports go out to the rest of the European Union, would not be a responsible action for Her Majesty’s Government to take.”
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The difficulty for the Prime Minister was that his attempt to secure brittle unity in his January speech was achieved only through the device of obscurity. We have heard it again today in relation to employment and social rights. We have all read the Beecroft report and know that the real agenda is to bring powers home to take rights away, but the Prime Minister could not even find it in himself to talk about unemployment and social rights in his speech at the end of January. The fact is that he knows and understands that the gap between what his Back Benchers want and what Europe could possibly countenance remains achingly wide.
Let me return to the Foreign Secretary, who back in November went on to say about a referendum:
“It would not help anyone looking for a job. It would not help any business trying to expand. It would mean that for a time, we, the leading advocates of removing barriers to trade in Europe and the rest of the world, would lack the authority to do so.”
That last point seemed to pass the Prime Minister by when he made his point in County Fermanagh 10 days ago. The Foreign Secretary went on to say:
“It would mean that as we advocate closer trading links between the EU and the countries of north Africa as they emerge from their revolutions, helping to solidify tremendous potential advances in human freedom and prosperity, we would stand back from that. That is not the right way to respond to this dramatic year of uncertainty and change.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 55.]
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), he actually clarified Labour’s position a little. If I heard him correctly, he said that his view was that if there was a substantial change in the relationship, the law provided for a referendum. Will he therefore confirm that if there were a Labour Government and there were no substantial change to the relationship, there would not be a referendum on our membership of the European Union?
I was simply making the straightforward point that, given the terms of the sovereignty clause, there is no objection in principle to referendums, because we are mandated—indeed, it is the law of the land—in such a way that if there is a transfer of sovereignty a referendum will take place.
When the Foreign Secretary makes his speech, will he provide a view on the following quotation? We heard from his Department back in November 2011, in answer to a parliamentary question I posed him:
“European markets account for half of the UK’s overall trade and foreign investments and as a result, around 3.5 million jobs in the UK are linked to the export of goods and services to the EU.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 256W.]
When I asked the Foreign Office the same question last week, it decided to pass it to the Treasury—I see that the Chancellor has left his place on the Front Bench—which came back with the intriguing reply that the Government have made no estimate. Well, there we are—that’s leadership for you.
What is to be made of that answer? The Government have gone from such a positive estimate just 11 months ago to being unable to give any estimate of the economic benefits of Europe today. One would almost think that they are frightened of facts, because facts are intolerable to their own Back Benchers.
Incidentally, I have a further point for the Foreign Secretary to consider when he makes his speech. Do he and the Prime Minister agree with their Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Education, who is also not in his place on the Front Bench but who said the following—this is a direct quote—about our membership of the European Union:
“Life outside would be perfectly tolerable, we could contemplate it, there would be certain advantages.”
Is that the view of the Government? Perhaps that is the answer being passed to the Foreign Secretary.
Then, as now, our judgment is that the priority must be to deliver stability, jobs and growth for the British economy. In fact, the irony is that even the Bill’s proposer has himself acknowledged that Parliament should be focusing on more important things. In a press conference on 15 May in Westminster, he said:
“I think the reality is that we need to be seen to be talking about the things that matter to people in places like Stockton South that I represent on Teesside, which is the cost of living, immigration, jobs, the economy, things that we need to get right to improve people's lives.”
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. There has been a lot of talk this morning about the national interest. I have been listening to the director general of the CBI, who has said that the most important thing in the British national interest is to bang the drum for Britain’s interests in Europe. Does my right hon. Friend think it would be easier to hear that drum if we were in the room fighting for British interests or if we ran away after shutting the door, as some in the Government seem to want to do?
I find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend. It is not simply the head of the CBI who is saying that. Some of the most distinguished leaders of British business, including Richard Branson, WPP and a range of others, wrote to the Financial Times in January in response to the Prime Minister’s speech. They made very clear their deep concern about the reality of the negotiating strategy, which the Prime Minister cannot even be explicit about with his own Back Benchers, because if he is explicit on this side of the channel it is deemed unacceptable on the other side of the channel.
My right hon. Friend has paid tribute to the impeccable oratorical skills of the Foreign Secretary and I agree with him on that, but is he looking forward, as I am, to hearing him argue his way out of the impeccable logic he has displayed in the past—his quotations apply as much today as they did back then—not least when 3.5 million jobs in the UK are dependent on our membership of the EU? I look forward to hearing the Foreign Secretary deploy his impeccable rhetorical skills to explain how black is now white.
I think we are all looking forward to that, but let us stick to the theme of the economy. Since November 2011, when the Foreign Office was at least willing to answer my question about the economic benefits—it now seems to have lost its nerve in the face of Tory intransigence—the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance for two years has increased by a staggering 173%. In the past six months alone, there has been zero growth in the economy. Since the Chancellor’s first spending review of 2010, the UK economy has grown by just 1%, compared with the 6% forecast at the time and the growth of nearly 3% in Germany and nearly 5% in the United States. Today almost 1 million young people are unable to find work and long-term unemployment is up by more than 100,000 since the last general election. This is the slowest economic recovery in the United Kingdom for more than 100 years. That is the reality of what people are talking about in constituencies the length and breadth of the country.
None of us doubts that Europe needs substantive change or that there needs to be reform; the tragedy for the United Kingdom is that the intransigence of the Conservative Back Benchers behind the Prime Minister means that he cannot address those needs in a sensible, straightforward manner. He did not wake up in January with a sudden democratic impulse that had somehow eluded him in the preceding years. He is being driven by weakness, not strength. This is about external electoral threats and internal leadership threats. This is not about trusting the people; it is about these Back Benchers not trusting the Prime Minister.
I will not give way, because I want to make progress. The Conservative approach to Europe undermines the prospects for growth, because, as my hon. Friend has just made clear, it creates unnecessary uncertainty that could undermine investment, because it risks Britain sleepwalking to the exit of the European Union precisely when the economic benefits of membership are most needed, given the stagnating economy. At least we have the courage to acknowledge that membership of the European Union is vital to the economy of the United Kingdom, not least because of the benefits of free trade and integration in the world’s largest trading bloc.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is a reasonable fellow, but what he does not seem to grasp is the fact that this debate—this issue—is about the principle of a referendum, not the relative merits of in or out. He also seems to fail to understand that this is about trust between politicians in general and the British electorate, given that too many promises have been broken in the past, including Labour’s promise of a referendum when it came to the EU constitution and Lisbon. Why will the Labour party not trust the people on this issue?
Why does the Conservative party not trust the Conservative Prime Minister? When will it release the Downing Street One? That is the question. He is sitting on the Front Bench like a hostage, not a leader.
Let me address the hon. Gentleman’s point. He was generous enough to describe me as a reasonable fellow and I return the compliment. As a reasonable fellow, he will be keen to defend and protect the jobs of his many constituents who work at places like Ford’s Dunton technical centre. I am sure that he is concerned for those jobs. Perhaps when he has the opportunity to speak he will explain to them why the European chief executive of Ford has said:
“All countries should have their sovereignty, but don’t discuss leaving a trading partner where 50pc of your exports go… That would be devastating for the UK economy.”
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be very interested in that.
I am keen to make a little progress. I have been generous in taking interventions.
In the face of such a severe economic crisis, Europe needs to be better focused on promoting growth across the continent. That is the priority for national Governments and that should be reflected at a European level. There is of course pressing work to be done, on which I hope there is cross-party agreement, such as the completion of the single market and its extension into digital, energy and finance. The rescue of the currency, protections for the single market and the revival of the prospects for growth should be Europe’s priorities for change.
On so many issues that matter—jobs, growth, trade and security in central Europe and the middle east—the EU remains an indispensable force multiplier for all its members. That includes the United Kingdom. Our membership gives us access to the single market, a stronger voice on international trade and amplified influence on international diplomacy. That is why, when today’s spectacle of a Tory party talking to itself is long forgotten, we will continue to make the case for Britain’s place in Europe and for change in Europe.
It is kind of Opposition Members to look forward to my speech. After the speech of the shadow Foreign Secretary, that is not altogether surprising. Rarely in this House—[Hon. Members: “More!”] Rarely in this House has a speech accusing others of causing uncertainty been so totally shrouded in uncertainty itself.
After the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, he has still not said whether the Opposition will vote for or against or abstain on Second Reading. He has managed to speak for half an hour without even saying what their position is on the Second Reading of the Bill—a feat almost unknown in this House and in all the Second Reading debates that I have attended in the past 24 years.
The parliamentary Labour party briefing, of which I have helpfully obtained a copy—they are left all over the building in surprising places—states:
“This is a Conservative Party Bill…which we are opposed to.”
If the Opposition are opposed to it, presumably they are going to vote against it. The shadow Foreign Secretary is not able to answer that question. Not only does he not know what his policy is; he does not even know whether he is going to vote against something that he is opposed to.
Opposition Members are asking when the Prime Minister will leave, but the Leader of the Opposition is not even here. He is presumably sitting somewhere, wondering whether his instructions will come in a phone call from Unite or from divine inspiration through the ether. There is no other way in which he is able to decide on the Bill.
I will make a bit of progress before giving way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) is to be applauded for introducing the Bill and for his excellent speech. Huge numbers of people across the country, as well as in this House, will thank him for it. The matter before us is about Europe’s future, our country’s place in it and, above all, democracy. It is about giving the people of this country the decisive say that is their right.
I will give way in a moment.
At a time of profound change in Europe, this Bill would give the British people the power to decide one of the greatest questions facing Britain: whether we should be in the EU or out of it.
In deference to my hon. Friends in the Liberal Democrat party, I must say that I am not speaking for the whole coalition. As will be obvious to the House, I am speaking on behalf of the Conservative party.
Two years ago, we passed the European Union Act 2011 to ensure that no Government could agree to transfer areas of power from Britain to the EU without a referendum. It met complete indecision from the Opposition, who resolutely and bravely abstained. However, support for it is now their official policy. Two years later, they have adopted our policy and we are pleased that they have done so. Today, with this Bill, we discover a similar wave of indecision on the Opposition Benches and we look forward to their adopting this policy in due course. Perhaps the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) will clarify that point.
Opposition Members will have to do better than that. The policy of the Government, which was set out in detail in the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, is to achieve a reformed European Union and a better settlement with it. We do not agree with the status quo and we want to be able to campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed European Union.
For the avoidance of doubt, I would vote to leave the European Union. The Foreign Secretary said that he was not speaking for both parts of the coalition. Is he sure about that? Surely he recalls how, in the last Parliament, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Deputy Prime Minister, marched his MPs out of this Chamber when they were denied the opportunity to move an amendment to have an in/out referendum. My right hon. Friend cannot be telling us the exact truth when he says that he is not speaking for both parts of the coalition. Perhaps he will clarify that, because I thought he was speaking very much for the Liberal Democrats as well.
When my hon. Friend said that he would vote to withdraw from the European Union, he was not avoiding doubt—I do not think we were in any doubt about that at the beginning. He makes a fair point about our hon. Friends the Liberal Democrats. I will helpfully explain my view on their position during my remarks.
On the subject of democracy, despite the resolute irresolution of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important for democracy that Members have a chance to record their support for the Bill in a Division? If a Division is not called, there are strong supporters of the Bill—myself and my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—who stand ready to enable such a Division, to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members may show their support for the Bill.
I will get through a few more paragraphs, but then I will give way to the right hon. Lady.
I do not need to remind the House that it is almost 40 years since the British people last had a vote on what was then the European Economic Community. Since then, there have been major treaties—four in the last quarter of a century—all of which would have required a referendum had the 2011 Act been in force at the time. Through those treaties, the EEC has become the European Community and now the European Union, and not once has there been a referendum on any of it. Some of us campaigned for referendums on the treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon. Everyone can concede of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice that the party in government had said that it would ratify them in the general election campaign.
The Lisbon treaty is in a special category, in that there was no mandate in a general election or a referendum from the people of this country. Persisting with the Lisbon treaty with no mandate from either a general election or a referendum—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) asks where I was when Maastricht took place. Is he not aware that there was a general election in 1992? There was no mandate for the Lisbon treaty from a general election or a referendum, and the Labour party deeply undermined the democratic legitimacy of the European Union when it took that decision.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed)? In the forthcoming referendum that the Foreign Secretary is advocating, which way will he vote? The Prime Minister has indicated that he will vote to stay in the EU. How will the Foreign Secretary vote?
The Prime Minister and I are in exactly the same position. Of course we will vote to stay in a successfully reformed European Union. Now perhaps the right hon. Lady will tell us how she will vote on this Bill—[Interruption.] No, Opposition Members still do not know how they will vote on this Bill.
When Ministers from other countries ask me why public opinion here is disillusioned with the European Union, I point out that there have been referendums on the EU in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Luxembourg, Sweden and Ireland—often twice, of course, in Ireland—yet there has been no referendum for more than a generation in the United Kingdom. The efforts of those who wanted to build European integration without bringing the people with them have been utterly self-defeating. The EU now lacks democratic legitimacy because so many of those most enthusiastic about ever-closer union have been afraid of asking what the British people might think of it.
My right hon. Friend is completely right in what he just said. Furthermore, with respect to Maastricht, how far the Conservative party has come! The other day my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister actually stated that he believed there should have been a referendum on Maastricht—and he was right.
I will not give way for a moment, but I will later on.
No institution can survive without the people’s support, and the EU that will emerge from the eurozone crisis may look very different from the EU before the crisis. Every country in the EU will have to make potentially fundamental choices about their place in Europe as a result, and the future shape of Europe for decades will be determined by those choices. But whatever the outcome of the crisis, the EU needs reform if it is to be democratically sustainable for all its members, which it will not be if ever-greater centralisation sucks ever more powers from its member states. As the Dutch Government’s recent report stated,
“the time of ‘ever closer union’ in every possible…area is behind us”.
They are right.
Our policy is therefore to seek reform so that the EU can be more competitive and flexible for the modern age, so that powers can come back to the countries of the European Union, and so that national Parliaments—the indispensible vessels of democracy—can have a more powerful role and then put the decision in the hands of the British people, as this Bill would do.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who, as Foreign Secretary and previously, has played a distinguished part in supporting EU expansion in eastern and central Europe. Given his reference to national Parliaments, will he tell the House what sort of message he thinks it sends to countries that have recently acceded to the EU that he is orchestrating a cynical attempt to bring us out?
I think the Bill sends the message that we are a robust democracy too. We welcomed Croatia into the European Union, and it had a referendum about whether to join. Therefore, it does not find discussion about referendums in other parts of the European Union surprising. That is why every Member of the House who is a true democrat can and should unite behind the Bill. It is about letting the people decide.
Those who like the EU just as it is—not me, but evidently some Labour Members—can campaign to see the EU regain its democratic legitimacy in this country. Those, like me, who want to see Britain succeed in reforming the EU can see what success we have in changing it, and then put the choice to the people. Those who want Britain to leave the EU come what may will also have the chance to persuade the British people. Ultimately, it would be up to the voters to decide, and that is the essence of democracy. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that
“will ask for a mandate from the British people…to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament.”
The Conservative party is ready to trust the voters with this Bill, and we are happy that the Democratic Unionist party is of the same mind. The Scottish National party is not here but it is content with a referendum next year, which means that the people of Scotland will vote twice on whether to leave the European Union. It is completely open to Members of other parties to support this Bill. Liberal Democrats can support this Bill. They are democrats and I remind my hon. Friends in the other part of the coalition of their last election manifesto, which stated:
“The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British Government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.”
The right hon. Gentleman is a fine Foreign Secretary and he bangs on about Europe very eloquently indeed. He will recall that at the time of the Lisbon treaty, the Liberal Democrats voted for an in/out referendum, not in four years’ time, the next Parliament or at some point in the future, but then and there. Will the right hon. Gentleman remind me whether we were supported by a single Conservative MP at that time?
My hon. Friend must remember that had our Liberal Democrat colleagues voted with us for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, there would have been a referendum in 2008. Some Labour Members support a referendum. We have heard from some of them already, and this Bill is their chance; it is the best chance currently available to make it happen. Not only would it be a badge of honour for them, but it would help to show their weak leadership some real leadership that is sorely needed.
This is not the first time that the question of whether to consult the people has caused unmitigated dither, muddle and confusion in the Labour leadership. When the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), was trying to decide whether to call a general election in 2007, he asked the current Leader of the Opposition, the current shadow Foreign Secretary and the current shadow Chancellor, resulting in the decision taking so long that they never made a decision at all and never held a general election. The impulse to trust the people is not exactly their hallmark.
Now we wonder: what is Labour’s policy? The shadow Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), who is not here, said in October:
“I think at some point there will have to be a referendum on the EU. I don’t think it’s for today or for the next year, but I think it should happen…My preference would be an in-or-out referendum when the time comes.”
In January, the Leader of the Opposition told the House,
“we do not want an in/out referendum”—[Official Report, 23 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 305.]
The shadow Foreign Secretary said that Labour will not commit to an in/out referendum now, but might do later—apparently that is the way to avoid uncertainty.
The shadow Chancellor said:
“I don’t think we should set our face against a referendum and I certainly don’t think we can ever afford to give the impression that we know better than the voting public”—
although that was never a problem for him when squandering tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Will Labour make up its mind or not? Its chief strategist, the noble Lord Wood, said the week before last on whether Labour would offer a referendum:
“It’s conceivable because we are going to make up our minds before the next election.”
Last week, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, “No, no, no. There’s no change of policy and there’s no prospect of a change of policy”.
With some in favour, some against, some adamantly in favour of not having a referendum, some adamantly for deciding later, at some point, perhaps before the general election but who knows?—with such a shambles of confusion and weak leadership, no wonder Labour Members are wondering what they are here for and where their leader is today. One day Unite will give them their orders on how to vote on these matters.
The Leader of the Opposition and his closest friends are being asked to make a decision—to vote one way or another and be held accountable for it. The position of the Labour party on this vital national and international issue is that Labour Members would rather not be asked and they would rather not be here.
As the Foreign Secretary knows, I am with him on the idea of a referendum, but would he help me with this? As someone who has attended many, many summits over the 24 years that he has been in Parliament—as a Minister, of course, he has attended many summits—does he think the Prime Minister will have the time and space between 2015, if he is re-elected as Prime Minister, and 2017 to go around the whole of Europe to get the concessions he needs in order to secure reform of the EU?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is tirelessly—now, in this Parliament, never mind in the next Parliament—going around Europe making sure this country gets what it needs. The Opposition do not have a policy to reform the EU, but we do and he is pursuing it. Labour never cut the EU budget, but he already has. Labour signed Britain up to eurozone bail-outs and he has got us out of them. Labour surrendered part of the rebate and he has never surrendered part of the rebate, so the right hon. Gentleman can rest assured that my right hon. Friend will be well equipped to go round Europe preserving our national interest.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The note circulated by Labour Whips—which has also come into my possession—said:
“We will be looking for suitable speakers so that the chamber is not completely empty”.
They need not have worried that the Chamber would be empty, because there are hundreds of us here, determined that the people will have their say.
I believe it would be right for the House to support this Bill today. It is the right Bill, at the right time, to give the British people their democratic right to have their say on this country’s future. We will do everything we can to make sure it becomes the law of the land, so that the people can decide, and in the next Parliament, the Prime Minister is determined that we will deliver on this commitment—a democratic commitment in a robustly democratic country.
I trust I will be judged a suitable speaker to make sure the Chamber is not completely empty.
I am delighted to speak in this debate, which has so far lived up to expectations. I would not have missed it for the world, because it must be one of the oddest debates ever held in this Chamber on a private Member’s Bill Friday. It is odd because of the politics of the occasion. I do not think there has been a private Member’s Bill Friday in the time that I have been in this House when the Prime Minister has been forced by his Back Benchers to come here to jump to their tune. Normally, Prime Ministers hold a sort of lofty disdain for private Members’ Bills, but our Prime Minister, in the eyes of Europe, has been humiliated here today by his own Back Benchers. That is one oddity about today. The second oddity is the reason the Bill is here at all, which I shall come to, and the third oddity is what is in it.
As I will explain to the hon. Gentleman and the House, the reason for that is that this is a Bill about the private problems and the private political difficulties of the Conservative party, so it is not surprising that so many Conservative Members are here today. These matters do not really affect the rest of us very much, except for—I will come to this—the damage that is being done by the antics within the Conservative party to the interests of this country.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the oddities of today’s Bill, and there are certainly some oddities in today’s proceedings. The greatest one I have heard so far is the shadow Foreign Secretary asking the Foreign Secretary how he will vote in a referendum in four years’ time, when the shadow Foreign Secretary cannot answer how he will vote on this Bill in less than four hours’ time.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will not be here. I wonder whether you could give some guidance on how long Members should remain in their places at the conclusion of a debate to hear the winding-up speeches.
I am not one of those who have been accused of abusing the courtesies of this House, but there is no requirement in the courtesies of this House to vote on a motion that is ridiculous, so I will not be voting on it.
There was a time, not so long ago, when private Members’ Bills were used for matters of great social reform, such as homosexual law reform and gay marriage. Issues of great constitutional importance were seen as the responsibilities of the Government. That may have changed. Gay marriage is an important social reform, so perhaps making it a Government proposal is progress—the Government’s gay marriage proposals certainly had many Government Members beside themselves. However, constitutional reforms, such as the Great Reform Act, the devolution referendum and the initial referendum on the European Union, which were the responsibilities of Government, have now been devolved by this weak and hopeless Prime Minister to private Members’ business. That is one great oddity.
No, I will make a little more progress.
Why has this situation come about? Why has supposedly the most powerful politician in the land come begging his MPs to support a private Member’s Bill? The Prime Minister’s position on the issue seems clear enough. He made a speech in January in which he said that after the next election, if there is a Conservative Government, he would aim to renegotiate our relationship with the EU, with an in/out referendum by 2017, come what may in those negotiations. That might not be wise—there is absolutely no guarantee of any negotiations being clear by 2017—but it is certainly a clear position, and it came from the Prime Minister.
Why was that not good enough for the Conservative Members who have turned up today? Of course, many of them just want to leave the EU. They do not care when, as long as it is as soon as possible, and they do not trust their own Prime Minister. As soon as the Queen’s Speech was published, they were after him. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) was first off the mark, moving an amendment regretting the failure to mention a referendum Bill in the Queen’s Speech. He was very clear why one was needed. He wrote in The Daily Telegraph:
“The Prime Minister made a historic pledge to the British people during his January speech,”
“where the Prime Minister’s pledge falls down is its believability.”
Let me repeat that:
“where the Prime Minister’s pledge falls down”—
this “historic pledge”, let us remember—
“is its believability.”
What an extraordinary statement! The reason we are here today is because the majority of Tory MPs do not believe that a historic pledge made by their own leader is believed by the British people. That is the only reason we are here, and that is why the Prime Minister is humiliated by these proceedings today.
I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman quotes very selectively from that piece. Having written it, I will correct him for the record. What I went on to say was that the issue was believability, not because there is an issue between the Prime Minister and his Back Benchers, but because the issue has been between politicians in general and the electorate, because far too many promises in the past have been broken, particularly by the Labour party and the Liberals, at every single general election. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to quote me, he should please do it correctly.
I quoted absolutely verbatim from the hon. Gentleman’s article. Let me respond to his further point. I would expect a Conservative MP to say, “You can’t really believe what Labour MPs say”, and I would expect Labour MPs to say, “You can’t really believe what Conservative MPs say.” That is what we do here in this House. It probably does not do us much good with the general public, but that is what we do—we throw these things about. What I do not expect is a Conservative MP to say, “You can’t believe a Conservative Prime Minister,” and that is what the hon. Gentleman did. The Bill has arisen from the decision of Conservative Back Benchers—
It is a point of order Madam Deputy Speaker—or I hope it is. I seek your guidance. I have been misquoted by the right hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I promise the House that I have been directly misquoted. [Interruption.] I wrote the piece, so I seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, on how one can correct the misquoting by the right hon. Gentleman.
The issue is a matter for debate, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I believe his name is down to be called in this debate and he will have ample opportunity at that point if he feels that the record needs to be corrected. I think he is experienced enough to know that these matters tend to be a point of debate rather than a point of order.
The first point is that this is really a private matter for the Conservative party. Whether they believe that their Prime Minister is trustworthy or believable is primarily a matter for them, not for the rest of us. If they wish to humiliate their party leader, that is up to them. I do not intend to participate in the vote later today.
We know what happened. The humiliated Prime Minister was forced to let the Tory party publish a referendum Bill, and the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) was unfortunate enough, from his point of view, to come top of the ballot. He might have made his name by trying to improve the lot of carers, improve animal welfare or tighten gas safety, or by engaging with the traditional territories of private Members’ Bills, but instead he has introduced this Bill. I do not blame him for it, but the Bill is about the Tory party and not the national interest.
No, I am going to make a little more progress and then I will take another intervention.
The aim seemed clear enough: to put the Prime Minister’s promise on to a statutory basis. We know what the promise was: after the next election to have a renegotiation and then to have a referendum by 2017. So imagine my surprise when I read the Bill, because it does not commit to a referendum after the next election. The Bill is very clear: the referendum could happen as soon as the Bill has been passed. It is not about after the next election or after renegotiation—it is any time now. That is very odd, because the Prime Minister is on the record as opposing a referendum Bill now. Why, then, does the Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Stockton South and drafted in Tory party central office, provide for the possibility of a referendum now? The hon. Gentleman gave the game away in an interview, again I am afraid, in The Daily Telegraph. Discussing possible amendments to the Bill, he said that the most difficult amendment to deal with would be one calling for a referendum before the next election, because
“many MPs would be sympathetic”
to such a move.
There we have it: the Bill has been drafted as broadly as it has, because if it accurately reflected the Prime Minister’s January speech and excluded a referendum before the next election, too many Tory MPs would have turned up demanding to amend it for an early vote. Far from showing the unity of the Conservative party, all the Bill has done is show how thin is the veneer of unity that they are trying to present. Again, this is private grief and is no business for the rest of us. Of course, it is entirely pointless, because no Bill of this sort can bind the next Parliament. Either the Conservatives win the next election or they do not—this is a pointless exercise.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and near parliamentary neighbour for giving way. I think that the people of Winchester and Chandler’s Ford, which are both near to his constituency, are clear that they want a choice on our relationship with Europe. He has called the Bill ridiculous. Will he explain why he is so sure that the people of Southampton, Itchen do not want a say on our future relationship with the EU?
Let me turn to the point I was about to address on how the national interest is served by this discussion. The national interest is the one thing that has been entirely missing from the debate so far. It is a debate about the Conservatives, and that is not the national interest. It is not a debate about the future of our country, our influence in the world or what is best for our children, but what is best for the Conservatives as they run away from the UK Independence party.
The debate is not doing the Tories much good. The January speech intended to lance the boil of UKIP, and some may have noticed that it led immediately to the Conservatives coming third in Eastleigh and losing seats all over the country to UKIP in the council elections. Again, that is private grief and I want to talk about the national interest.
It struck me as a little odd that both the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) and the Foreign Secretary missed out UKIP in their speeches. Does my right hon. Friend think that they are totally scared of mentioning UKIP?
There is no doubt that this whole exercise is driven by the Conservative party’s terror of UKIP.
In answer to the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine)—I will come on to the specific point on a referendum in a moment—I want our future to be as a confident part of a reformed European Union. There are people who say that we could be like Switzerland or Norway. They are fine countries, but I do not want to be like them. Clearly, the days of empire and global military might are long gone and rightly so, but I am still sufficiently confident in this country and sufficiently patriotic to believe that we can be a country of influence and leadership in the world. I am not going to join those who just want to scuttle away from the challenges of the world, as Eurosceptics do.
Yes, there is a case for a referendum in principle, and I see that. It is a long time since we had one, and to an extent the demand for it has taken on a life of its own beyond the issue of Europe. However, those of us who can see that case also have a responsibility to be clear about the conditions in which a referendum would serve the national interest. If we are to ask people to vote, the choice has to be clear. We need to know what the effect of saying yes will be, and we need to know what the effect of saying no will be.
The hon. Member for Stockton South and the Foreign Secretary both let the cat out of the bag. The hon. Member for Stockton South said that no one knows what the European Union will be like in 10 years’ time, and the Foreign Secretary said that it may be very different from the way it is today. Both those judgments are true, so how can we have a referendum when the consequences of leaving might be clear enough, but it is not clear what the consequences of staying will be. Clearly, we need to pursue reform and to reshape the EU so there can be a clear and settled choice. I am not one of those—not all of those in my party agree with this, but I do not mind there being a discussion in our party—who rule out a referendum on Europe. However, a referendum should only happen if it is in the national interest and if we can put to the people a clear and settled choice. That has not yet been delivered.
My right hon. Friend is making an important and thoughtful speech, and he is right to embrace the reform agenda. Does he agree that that reform agenda can start now, and that we can only conduct the reform agenda if we are at the top table of Europe? There is nothing to stop Ministers beginning that process immediately.
My right hon. Friend is right. What worries me is that the Prime Minister represents a party in which that generation of confident patriots, who believed that this country could shape Europe to the benefit of Europe and in the interests of our country, has gone. The Conservative party is split. There are those who simply want to leave come what may. They are the people Lewis Carroll satirised 150 years ago when he had the Queen of Hearts say, “Sentence first, evidence later”. They have made up their minds. The other faction of the Conservative party simply believes in repatriation and repeal: returning to the country those rights that give working people decent protections—maternity pay, the right not to be maimed and killed at work, and paid holidays—in order to repeal them. Those are the only two positions that exist in today’s Conservative party. So when my right hon. Friend says that these negotiations should start now, the problem is this: yes, but you must have people who are going to be credible in those negotiations.
We send a Prime Minister who has been forced. He goes to meetings and everyone is laughing behind their hands, because they know that he does not control his own party, and that his strength to negotiate on our behalf is being shot away by the antics of the people behind him, who know that 2017 is an arbitrary date that bears no relationship to any decision-making processes in the EU, but is entirely about trying to head off—unsuccessfully, it has to be said—the threat from UKIP. That is not a way to approach the national interest.
I am not one of those who says, “These are only matters for general elections and that there must never be a point where people have a choice.” But to return to what the hon. Member for Winchester said, if I say, “Let’s have a choice”, my constituents have a right for the choice to be clear—clear about the nature of the European Union they could vote for or the nature of the European Union that they would leave. There is no clarity to that choice today. There is no reason to believe that there will be clarity to that choice on the arbitrary date of 2017.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it might be helpful if I inform the House that more than 43 Members wish to participate in today’s debate. There will not be a time limit, because there is not in private Members’ business, but it would help if all Members could bear in mind that many of their colleagues wish to speak and, therefore, perhaps, make their speeches just a little shorter, if possible.
I just reflect that, after the last three contributions by Labour Members, I genuinely think that their policy is unsustainable; this will, I am sure, be changed before we get to a general election.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) on moving a Bill to give the British people a referendum, and wish him well in this. It is a curious Bill for a private Member’s day, but I give a cheer for that as well, because, on 21 February 1992, I also introduced a private Member’s Bill—I was No. 1 in the ballot—to have a referendum on Maastricht. Unfortunately, in those days Mr John Major—Sir John Major as he became—was against the matter, so perhaps I was a Prime Minister or two short. I mention that because I also moved a referendum Bill during the Maastricht treaty considerations in 1993, one year exactly after the private Member’s Bill.
I also notice that there is a three-line Whip on this Bill; I think it diminishes it. I say that straight away, because I remember that when I tried to reform or failed to reform—I am sorry that this is a catalogue of failed private Member’s Bills—section 2 of the Official Secrets Act in 1988, so aggrieved were the Government, with movements on the Back Benches, upstairs, outrage and all the rest, that this was clearly not a matter for a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, that the then Conservative Government, under someone I respected greatly, put on a three-line Whip, again, against me. There is no paranoia in what I say, just realism.
I will say that, on the private Member’s Bill on the Official Secrets Act, there was a queue in Central Lobby of Conservative Members who had served in the second world war and were what used to be called, unlike me, knights of the shires, going into the Whips Office to tell them that this was a constitutional outrage, that their Fridays were being interrupted and that this was exclusively a space of time left for the consideration of Bills by private Members, and to bring forward Bills of great importance, as we all think of our own initiatives.
I wish my hon. Friend well and I shall most certainly vote for this Bill, because there would be a slight inconsistency if I did not—although that has never been a difficulty for most politicians in the past.
I am most interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is right about three-line Whips. We Labour Members have not been three-line whipped. I have come here of my own volition. Are his colleagues being three-line whipped to attend or to vote for the Bill?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not the progenitor of the Whip, but I respect my wonderful party, which at last has found a voice to express those they represent. I think that the Labour Front Bench is in genuine difficulties over this matter, because it is a rejection of a movement and feeling that is now effective in the country. This has been too long coming: an unconscionable period of time. I made a famous prediction, which I regret to say did not come about, with the experience and arrogance of youth, and in a television studio in Birmingham announced that this common market racket would be over in 10 years. That is, of course, now 32 years ago.
I learned from that the tenacity with which a particular class of those who lead us have sought to control this issue. There is no defence of conversation within a nation, or anything. All the way through this, an elite in our political parties, which rises to the top, forms judgments and changes its judgments. Peter Shore wrote perhaps the most balanced speech, titled “A thousand years of British history”, when we knew nothing, rather like the other day in the Commons, about what the Government’s intentions were in joining. That speech asks a series of questions. We know nothing about this. We wonder. We have to wait. The Conservatives also knew nothing about it and did not have to wait. So in the end they were great supporters of our joining what was called the common market.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a huge paradox in hon. and right hon. Members arguing against this Bill on the basis of the national interest, because the national interest cannot be determined by the nation while we are in the European Union under its current constitution?
I love the question. Years ago, when I was a very young Member, the BBC kindly asked me—I had been disobliging over official secrets, or whatever it was—whether I would do an essay and a short broadcast for it on the national interest. University being not so far away, I filled rooms with books. What came out on the national interest was that whoever has a majority in this Chamber is the national interest. We will debate it until the end of time, but in the end it is resolved by a vote here, ultimately.
I am more cautious about this grand expression of the national interest. I have the clearest view of what the national interest is: we should have immediately, as soon as possible, a vote on continued membership of the European Union. I would affirm that that is in the national interest. When I hear people casually throwing around questions about what is the national interest, my own truthful observation is that it is, as Madam Deputy Speaker would say, debatable. That is what I see as the national interest.
I want to say of my gyrations through my private Member’s Bills, and this matter, that this is about the most profound question that this House faces. It is not a narrow question of whether the country is interested in dogs, or this and that; the country is indeed interested in all those things. This touches on a living democracy.
The opponents of these measures never understand that this is an ancient collection of islands, an archipelago, in whose history, and in the lines of whose history, lies the very story of liberty and freedom, whether in Scotland or England, with our own Magna Carta. We forget that. This was the integrity.
During my unsuccessful speech in the past, there was a magnificent contribution by a Labour MP; it was Peter Shore. Some will remember him; he was a considerable figure in his own right. He made a contribution to the debate on my Bill, saying that I had
“managed, in a few words, to address two major points, the first of which is the role of the referendum, which offers one of the few possibilities to remedy a fundamental weakness in our constitution. We have no written constitution and no procedures to protect and entrench features of our national and constitutional life. Everything can be changed by a simple majority. Many other countries, as we know, have quite elaborate procedures requiring a majority of two thirds for changes in constitutional matters and arrangements, often backed up with public referendums.”
“We have no such defence. Indeed, previously we did not need them, because only this generation of British parliamentary representatives has contemplated handing to others the great prizes of national independence, self-government and the rule of law under our own elected representatives. It would not have occurred to a previous generation to hand to others that which we prize most greatly and have given to other countries throughout the world in the past 50 years. That is the novelty of the proposition, against which, because we did not think it conceivable, we have no defences. A referendum is a major constitutional device for defending the rights of the British people and our constitution.”—[Official Report, 21 February 1992; Vol. 579, c. 590.]
That is what is at the heart of this matter; that is the question we always have to answer; that is what it is about. Why should we hand over our self-government, which we prize, to others? This is not a criticism of other nations’ wishes to do what they want; it is about our ability to judge for ourselves what is most appropriate. This is not a repudiation of our friendships and our commitments to our allies.
Not at the moment, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
This is about not consigning to others the making of laws and treaties for ourselves; this is about ourselves. This vote, what we decide and what people in the future decide will determine the character and strength of our national constitutional history, which is being threatened. Why should we defer in such an adventure, when this is the most remarkable and ancient of all the democratic communities within western Europe? Why?
We have had a generation of politicians who have acceded and conceded. As we know, nothing was yielded over Maastricht. I therefore wish the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary well—God knows where they are in their travels—as they look at competences and all the rest of it. I believe that a referendum is inevitable for the British people, and I believe that what the Labour party decides on this matter is also important to the British people. Labour Members, like Conservative Members, have changed their mind a number of times on this issue. I profoundly believe, as I think all Members do if they reflect on our purpose here, that there should be a change in the law. When change comes from Europe, it comes from an authority greater than that of this Chamber because of the cravenness of a generation of British politicians who did not think that they could govern their own land or believe in their own country. The people must be able to make a judgment. Let the people speak.
I find myself agreeing completely with what I believe to be the three motivating thrusts of those who have brought forward the proposal we are discussing today. The first is the clear need for renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s relationship with the European Union; the second is the need for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU on renegotiated terms; and the third is the question of whether we trust the British Government. I find myself agreeing with Conservative Back Benchers that the Government cannot be trusted, so it is necessary to put things down in legislation in order to allow them no wriggle-room whatever.
I remember being one of those Members who voted with the Foreign Secretary on the question of a referendum at the time of Lisbon. I remember the Conservatives saying that when they got to power, they would have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, yet no referendum on Lisbon did they hold. I think that in those circumstances words are not sufficient so legislation is necessary.
I was not quite sure whether the Foreign Secretary was going to seek to intervene on the hon. Gentleman. May I remind him that what the Conservative Front-Bench team said in opposition was that they would hold a referendum in the event that the Lisbon treaty had not been ratified by the time we came into office? That is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary went round a number of European capitals, urging them “Please, do not ratify”—unlike what the United Kingdom had done—so that when we came to power we would be able to veto it and have a referendum for the British people. It is that misunderstanding that is so important. This was not a categorical undertaking for a referendum; it would happen only in certain defined circumstances.
It sounds like a get-out to me. The clear impression created was that the Conservatives were against the Lisbon treaty and that a referendum would be held. When they got into power, was a referendum held? No, it was not. That is what people will remember. That is what the people out there remember; they remember that the Conservative party could not be trusted to abide by its promise to have a referendum on Lisbon. That is why I support the proposals before us today.
A small group of us here have shared these debates. For the benefit of those who did not, Governments have found ways to get out of having to comply with their promises once they are in government —and with the Tories it was about when to ratify. With the Lib Dems, they got out of having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty by suddenly wanting an in/out referendum —and now that they can have that, they want something else. The real lesson is: once in government, people do not allow referendums; in opposition, they are much more likely to promise them.
Well, the Whips have been to see me and they deployed the ultimate threat. They said, “If you think of voting for this, we will send round Len McClusky.” I said, “I know Len McClusky. Len McClusky is a friend of mine. I had Len McClusky’s support in the last general election. I had the support not only of Len McClusky but of the GMB, Unison, UCATT and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, while opposing me were only Conservatives, nationalists and snivelling Liberals. And I got 60% of the vote.”
Now, in those circumstances, Len McClusky does not frighten me. I am drawing to people’s attention—this is only fair—the fact that, as I understand it, Len McClusky and Unite are in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union. They find themselves in these circumstances in agreement with the snivellers opposite. It is not necessarily the case that Len McClusky and Unite are right on all questions, as Members will be aware. Before I move on, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) on introducing this measure. He was obviously enjoying himself, and if he carries on like that he will undoubtedly be punished by being promoted to the Front Bench—sooner rather than later.
I also congratulate those who are really behind this proposal—and that is UKIP. [Interruption.] I am sorry, a sniveller. I give way to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood).
Given the hon. Gentleman’s childish remarks about the Liberal Democrats, I can tell him that he has lost one member of Unite today. I am holding up my trade union membership card, which I have stuck to religiously since my days in the charity sector, but I can give it to him after the debate and he can do what he likes with it.
No, no; if you offer it to one, then you have to—Anyway, I will be having consultations in Room 220 in Portcullis house for those who wish to see me privately.
As we all know, it is really UKIP that has to be congratulated on this Bill. This would not be coming forward in this way if the Conservatives were not under pressure from UKIP. My side should not be unduly enjoying what is happening with the Conservatives and UKIP, because UKIP is also entirely capable of eating into our vote, as voting for UKIP is a vote against leadership and government by an elite that is seen to be out of touch. It is a revolt, in a sense, by those who see themselves as little people ignored by the existing system. While Europe has been the particular issue around which it has coagulated, that is not necessarily the only issue on which it sees itself as divorced from politics. However, the Conservatives have reacted to UKIP almost solely on this issue.
The Government’s position is much weaker than it appears. I was appalled to hear the Prime Minister say before the negotiations had started that he was going to be voting for Britain to stay in. That grossly undermines the Government’s negotiating position. Who goes into negotiations and says, “We will vote to accept the terms we are offered” before the negotiations have started? That seems to me to be an incredibly weak position.
After today’s votes and discussions, we ought to enter into a period of serious discussion of the terms on which we wish to seek renegotiation. What is it that we want to see? I want to spell out a number of points I think we ought to discuss, because, knockabout apart—and snivellers apart—these are serious issues that we have got to debate.
Clearly that discussion is going to start now and go on for four years until 2017. If there was a vote now, I would vote to come out, but now we are going to have this alternative plan. It is good that we have four years to try and get it right, so the British people can then say, “Actually we like the end result that the Prime Minister has negotiated”—or they say that they do not and we leave. In my view, this makes a pretty good fist of dealing with this problem.
I have considerable sympathy with that point of view, but it is grossly undermined by the fact that the Prime Minister has already indicated he intends to vote for the terms that are offered after renegotiation, irrespective of what those terms are. That is an absurd negotiating position, and the silence now among Members on the Government Benches speaks eloquently to their support for my position.
What points for renegotiation should we be focusing on? The first is the question of ever-closer union. It is clear to me that we have to make it clear—absolutely clear, crystal clear—that we reject totally the concept of ever-closer union and the idea that the EU is a ratchet which only ever turns in one direction. I support devolution for Scotland on the principle that I believe powers should be moved downwards. I support the concept of subsidiarity, too, as I believe that in principle we ought to say that all powers held at any given level should be moved to the level below, unless a very strong case can be made for retaining them where they are. The onus ought to be on those who wish to hold them centrally to justify that position, rather than the converse. That has not been the position of successive British Governments up until now, and it should be, and I think we ought to make it absolutely clear that that is our position going forward, so that the inexorable expansion of the EU’s powers—like the Blob in the science fiction films that used to replicate itself every 24 hours and expand into new areas—is halted and constrained.