My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, on his election as leader of UKIP. I thought that his reported offer to liquidate his party in exchange for a deal with the Conservatives showed a rather original approach to party leadership. The Answer to the noble Lord’s Question is no.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her comments. I have to tell your Lordships that the democratic process and the subsequent media attention have come as quite a shock to the system at my age, but I am, of course, enjoying it very much.
I fear that the Minister’s Answer serves to confirm the gulf between the political class and the British people. How do the Government respond to the large and growing majority of voters who polls show very much want a referendum? Are they surprised at that demand now that the Lisbon treaty has removed the last vestiges of our national sovereignty and EU membership is costing us some £45 million per day in cash and hugely more when we add up the costs of overregulation, expensive food and so on? How can this country possibly afford this in our present circumstances?
My Lords, far be it from me to cause further shocks to the noble Lord’s system. Repetition of his hostility to our country’s membership of the European Union does not add strength or wisdom to his arguments. The truth is that the United Kingdom derives great export, employment and investment advantages from our membership of the single market. Does the noble Lord wish to turn that clock back? Does he want to affect the jobs and the security situation that we enjoy because of our membership the European Union? Our country’s environmental security, currently under discussion in Copenhagen, and our geopolitical interests are also best served by full and committed participation in the European Union. These and other realities mean that a referendum on continued membership is unjustified, unnecessary and, frankly, irrelevant to the interests and needs of the people of this country.
My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, has shown today a standard of leadership that screams out to all other political parties that they do not have a great deal to worry about?
On a more serious note, would she give us her reflections on the voice of UKIP in the European Parliament when it was questioning the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, in her new role as European High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs? Does she think that it is of any benefit to this country to talk down a British politician who is fighting not only for a British, but also for a European, interest in Brussels in the high role that she has been given?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for raising those points. I am well aware of the comments made by the former leader of UKIP. I thought that they were so vile that they probably damaged him far more than our noble friend or anyone else. This House has every reason to know of the profound capabilities of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and will have every confidence in her ability to apply those qualities in her new role as High Representative.
My Lords, we are all concerned that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, who we all admired very much and who was an excellent Leader of the House, should have been caught up in this maelstrom of arguments following the Lisbon treaty being put into force. It is very worrying. I make clear that we are not interested in the ideas of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, in our referendum. I think that was the policy of the Liberal Democrats recently. Perhaps they would explain. We are concerned that we should not be outwitted, as we appear to have been, in dealings with the appointment of the new Commission. Surely what we need in London is a smarter Government in dealing with the French and the European Union, rather than the Government we have now.
I do not think anyone can take away from the Government the fact that we have had a very good result in terms of the decisions that were taken after the Lisbon treaty came into force. The High Representative, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, will have an extremely important task in streamlining the abilities of the European Union to deal with the increasingly complex foreign policy issues. The UK Government remain committed to our relationship with the European Union and that has to be in the interests of the British people.
My Lords, it is an eccentric state of affairs as the Minister has indicated. Has she noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, probably qualifies for the Guinness Book of Records as being the only leader of a British political party to have caused a mass resignation crisis three days after taking over? Would she none the less also reflect that as so many senior Conservatives dislike Europe intensely perhaps the logical solution would be for a merger between UKIP and the Tories, but before the general election?
I thank the noble Lord, and I cannot help noting that the cast-iron guarantee given by Mr Cameron seems to have somewhat evaporated and been lamely replaced by the pledge that democracy through Parliament will be replaced by democracy by plebiscite on European issues. That certainly cannot be in the interests of the British people. He quite rightly points out that there seem to be many issues on which there is considerable agreement between the UK Independence Party and the Conservative Party.