Little over a month ago, when I was knocking on doors in Boston and Skegness during the election campaign, I encountered dozens of people who said their top priorities are tackling immigration and regaining control of our borders, preventing foreign nationals who haven’t paid into our welfare system from getting pay outs, getting a grip on farming or fishing policies – all of these are things where Europe currently has too much say, and to all of them I would point out that the Conservative-led coalition had sought to tackle as much of them as possible. But I would also point out that only a renegotiation with Brussels and a referendum on Europe would offer the long-term solution that our country urgently needs.
All those people that I spoke to – literally – would agree with me that the root of the problems they mentioned, lay either in whole or in part with the EU, and that renegotiating our position and then having a referendum on staying in or leaving, was the only option. They would usually agree that only the Conservatives could offer this. Many of them would then go on to tell me that they were not going to vote for me anyway.
Enough of them however, did – thankfully – and I am proud to now be part of a majority Conservative government. But when I asked those who said they were not voting Conservative, even though they thought what we offered was the best option available, I was told again and again that they simply did not believe that we would offer the referendum they wanted and we were promising.
So the referendum on Europe is not just a key opportunity for us to redefine our relationship with Brussels- crucial though that is- It is a real chance for us to start to restore faith in politicians. Keeping our promises has never been more important.
I was therefore hugely concerned that rules on the purdah period before that referendum or on campaign funding were not just worrying in themselves but arguably worse and we risked leaving ourselves open to the accusation that the government is trying to fix the election, whether that is its intention or not.
That is not just because I want to see the referendum conducted in the best possible way – if we are to have it, I hope everyone in this House would want to have a fairly run contest. It is more than that, because if there is any doubt about the rules under which the government is operating, we will spend too much of the campaign period talking not about whether we should be in or out of Europe, but about the referendum itself. In this once in a generation opportunity, it would be a travesty if we talk about referendum rules rather than European rules. It’s worth pointing out too, that the Conservative Party would not in those circumstances, derive the political advantage it deserves for bringing the referendum that no other party prior to the election wanted, despite the obvious will of so many people in the country.
So from all angles, it seems to me it is right that the referendum proceeds without the constant accusation that it is not whiter than white.
I do not, therefore, support the Government today without serious consideration of what today’s proposals are lightly. I do not think the current rules, such as scrapping the purdah period, remove the risk entirely that the machinery of the civil service will not campaign for one or other side in the referendum. The people of Boston and Skegness showed themselves at the ballot box to be very independent minded indeed, and I do not think they would be swayed by what would be seen as Government propaganda and treated sceptically, and I do not think it would be right for the Government to be permitted to bombard us all with its views and drown out other views.
But I accept that ministers and civil servants must be able to engage with Europe even during the campaign – it is testament to how bound up we are with Europe, rightly or wrongly, that our country could not function without that. However I am more than willing to believe that it is not beyond the wit of man or government to come forward with amendments to the current proposals that we can all be comfortable with and which ensure the referendum is seen to be totally fair.
I would not be saying this if I had not read my right honourable friend the Europe Minister’s letter this morning and heard his promises to work consensually with colleagues, to make sure that the new proposals are acceptable to both Eurosceptics and Europhiles, all of whom want the discussion to be about Europe and not the vote. As someone who would like the Prime Minister to negotiate a new relationship with Europe so that we can campaign with integrity to stay in, but also as someone who is not in any way scared of coming out, I hope that we are able to resolve this issue quickly, and get on with talking about the real pros and cons of the Europe I believe we all want, based primarily on trade and a common market.