Last week Adam Afriyie announced he was putting down an amendment to the EU Referendum Bill, which would set 23rd October 2014 as the date on which an In/Out Referendum would be held. In its current form, the Bill only promises a referendum to be held before the end of 2017.
There is a lot of merit in such a proposal. Given our current level of contributions to the EU, delaying a referendum by three years until 2017 would see our handing over a further £50billion to those unelected eurocrats before we are even given a say on whether we wish to continue doing so. We are told by the usual scaremongers that the ongoing debate is causing uncertainty and risks damaging trade; not an argument I accept, but an early referendum would quash any uncertainty there may be.
And that’s not to mention that a clear, consistent and growing majority of people want a referendum – now.
The response to Mr Afriyie’s amendment from his own Conservative colleagues has been startling. Instead of supporting his call for an early referendum like the eurosceptics many of them purport to be, he has been roundly abused. He has been branded a “fantatist” who has “lost touch with reality” by Conservative MPs briefing against him, anonymously of course. Not to be outdone, the Conservative-supporting press have branded him “a wally”.
Even the erudite Jacob Rees-Mogg got in on the act. Writing for the Telegraph, Rees-Mogg sought to explain how the amendment wasn’t helping the Eurosceptic cause and called for Mr Afriyie to “pipe down”. His reasons were twofold.
First, he declares the idea of renegotiating our relationship with Europe and seeking to repatriate powers to be eminently sensible. Unlike the Prime Minister, he went as far as to name what he sees as the minimum aims for renegotiation: opt-outs from the common fisheries policy, financial regulation and most importantly the free movement of people. And therein lies the problem.
It is incomprehensible to imagine that the Prime Minister will be able to secure the repatriation of any meaningful powers, particularly as the Commission has clearly set its face against it. It beggars belief they will concede ground on the free movement of people when this is the very bedrock of the European federalist dream. It cannot and will not happen, and it seems crazy to argue in favour of three years of negotiations which you know from the outset will not result in a satisfactory outcome. That way madness lies.
Secondly, he argues time is need to negotiate our exit under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which would allow for transitional arrangements to be agreed thereby reassuring voters they have nothing to fear from voting to leave the EU. Again, these would be negotiations doomed to failure.
Make no mistake, the Commission want to see the UK remain part of the European project (or should I say they want us to continue to bankroll it). So why on earth would they risk damaging the prospects of an ‘in’ vote by agreeing to smooth our path towards the exit door? It makes no sense whatsoever. Instead, once an ‘out’ vote has been secured, we would be in a much stronger negotiating position as a net importer of goods and services from European countries. To borrow and paraphrase a recent quote, Mr Mercedes really isn’t going to want to stop selling us cars.
So why has there been such a vitriolic response to the calls for an early referendum? The answer is patently obvious.
Ever since the Conservatives reneged, in 2010, on their promise to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, there have been calls for an immediate in-out referendum on Europe, from within the Conservative party and from without. These calls were contemptuously and consistently rejected, right up until 2013. Why the sudden u-turn?
Between 2010 and 2013 something incredible happened: UKIP started doing rather well. From strong showings in parliamentary by-elections up and down the country, to gaining hundreds of council seats in local elections, we gained momentum. Whilst the Conservative party finally admitted its membership had halved during the years of Cameron’s leadership, UKIP’s had doubled in no time at all. That’s not to mention we now consistently poll ahead of the Liberal Democrats, making us the third party in British politics, and continue to punch above our weight whenever and wherever elections are held.
Suddenly, Conservative MPs with tiny majorities (such as James Wharton, the sponsor of the Referendum Bill and my own local MP) began to get twitchy and panic, and out of their terror the Bill was born. Not through any principled desire to give the voters the referendum they demand, but to kick the whole issue of Europe into the long grass until the next general election in a desperate bid to curtail the rise of UKIP.
But the electorate are neither stupid nor gullible. We may never know the real motives behind Adam Afriyie’s tabled amendment, but the Conservative party’s reaction to it tells us all we need to know about the party machine’s motives for the bill.