Today MPs voted on my amendment to give people a 2014 EU referendum.
Although 15 MPs (6 per cent of those who voted) supported a 2014 referendum, it was not enough.
It was hard work but I was determined to try to give people the chance of a 2014 vote because this was the right thing to do when the most people want one. Our relationship with Europe, whether good or bad, is at the centre of almost all the big issues in politics, including immigration, human rights and, even, energy bills. It will define, and potentially decide, the next general election.
A 2014 EU referendum was the only way to guarantee that British voters had their say on Europe. When 82 per cent of the British population want a referendum, 55 per cent of the British people want one before 2015 and 57 per cent of Conservative Party members want one before 2017, it was only right that parliament got to express its view.
Sadly people will now continue to feel that the political class is out of touch with their wishes.
All Conservative MPs want an EU referendum – this is not at issue. We’re united, and we’re still the only party who want to give the British people an EU vote. We would have held one in this parliament if it wasn’t for the LibDems, who are frightened of letting the British people have a say. But by delaying the referendum until 2017, we leave uncertainty in the minds of the British people.
As our thoughts turn towards the 2014 European elections and the 2015 general election, we must accept that it will be difficult to convince our constituents that we are not kicking the ‘EU can’ down the road once again. Over the next 18 months we will need to persuade voters that we are serious about our intention to hold an EU referendum. And we will need to convince these people in large numbers if we are to stand a chance of winning.
After returning from campaigning in the South Shields by-election campaign in April, I wrote on Conservative Home:
“It seems to me that the only way forward is if we acknowledge the way people really feel about immigration and Europe and gain enough credibility that they trust us to deliver the referendum after robust negotiations. If we’re serious we must bring the legislation that enables a referendum before parliament sooner rather than later. Even if Labour and Lib Dem MPs vote against it, the British people will know we’re serious. Otherwise constituencies like South Shields will never take us seriously.”
I have not changed that view.
There is now no doubt that many people will vote UKIP in the EU elections next May, as they did in the South Shields by-election. This division of the centre-right may well continue into 2015.
James Wharton’s Bill is a good step in the right direction and continues to enjoy my support. However, it is not a panacea, and in my opinion it is unlikely to make it to the statute book or play a major role in our electoral fortunes. But it does represent the mood of Conservative MPs today and offers some hope. Despite the headwinds I will do what I can to help the EU Referendum Bill to House of Lords and beyond.
The Conservative determination to give the people a say on the EU is undiminished. The big challenge now is how to re-unite the Conservative family behind the Conservative Party at the next general election.