Last week I tabled an amendment calling for an EU referendum to take place in October 2014, before the next general election. Since then, my office has received hundreds of supportive letters and emails from people across the country. Their message is clear: fight on – you are doing what the people of this country want. I am in the process of responding to these letters, but I want to say to everyone that has written in: I am determined to continue. I will do everything I can to give parliament a chance to decide if it wants a referendum before the election. I will back the British people and stand up for what you want.
So, while I am very sensitive to the concerns of other MPs, I fully intend to continue and take this amendment to a vote on the 8 November, unless someone can come up with a better way of securing an EU referendum next year.
The British people want an early EU Referendum
A Survation poll last week found that 55 per cent of the public supported a 2014 referendum. Many more thought that Parliament should have the chance to vote for it. Hardly anyone said it should be quietly brushed under the carpet or battered into ignoble silence.
In my experience, people do not understand why there is such a vicious backlash from some quarters. The Conservative Party members and councillors who have written to me in the last few weeks are equally bewildered. So I urge people who are reading this article to write to their MP as well to voice their opinion, whether they disagree or agree with the amendment – these letters make a real difference.
We need a vote on an early referendum
People believe that their MPs – who they voted into parliament to represent them – should at least have a say on this matter either way, for or against; otherwise the British people are, quite literally, silenced.
It may well be inconvenient for some MPs but we must face the facts – and acknowledge what we already know: while all Conservatives will work hard to secure a majority at the next election, polling figures and an analysis of marginal seats shows that victory is not a foregone conclusion. Without a Conservative majority government there is next to no chance of an EU Referendum at any point in the future. It is totally wrong that party politics should wash this amendment away.
Attacking the amendment gives people the impression that our political establishment does not want to give the public a say on our relationship with Europe; does not trust them to vote; does not want to face the facts and tackle this issue once and for all. They do believe we're going to kick the EU-can down the road and attacking my amendment only reinforces this impression.
I agree with Lord Owen, who is free to speak his mind as a crossbencher and supported an early referendum a few months ago. He says that the public are "democrats who cannot and will not be fobbed off by politicians from having their say". Lord Owen supports the UK's membership of the European Union; supporting an early referendum does not mean you necessarily support leaving the EU. There will be two choices on the ballot paper.
The Wharton Bill does not guarantee an EU referendum
As a backbench MP who has been elected to represent my constituents, one of my responsibilities is to critically evaluate legislation and suggest amendments where I feel an error has been made. That is one of the primary functions of an MP. And it is important that nobody is bullied out of doing so.
There is no doubt that James Wharton's Bill is a towering accomplishment; backbenchers have worked hard to get this piece of legislation onto parliament despite heavy resistance.
But it is not, and should not be, the only option. Alternative timescales must be considered – particularly autumn 2014. So I believe that Wharton's Bill is the second best option. Every MP accepts the danger that even if this Bill is passed it could be easily amended or repealed at some point in the future. Every MP knows that the Bill does not guarantee an EU Referendum in 2017.
I know that many of my colleagues want to support the amendment to bring forward the date of an EU referendum, but are worried that their support might threaten the Bill. I am thankful for the many productive discussions that we have all had over the last few days and hope we can all use the next three weeks to carefully consider all of the arguments.
But, above all, when MPs vote on this amendment on 8 November I hope that my colleagues will vote on the basis of what they think is the best for their constituents rather than what the Party whip has said that morning. This is not a Government Bill, it is a Private Members' Bill, and I know the British people will be watching.