Sunday, 30 June 2013

Critical Moments

John Mills writes:

On 5 July MPs will vote on whether to give the British people their first say on the European Union for almost 40 years.

The EU referendum private members' bill being proposed by Conservative MP James Wharton could have been a great moment for Britain's parliament, undermined in recent years by expenses and lobbying scandals. 

It could have been one of those critical moments when MPs put aside partisan differences for the common good. But it won't be.

The Conservatives have chosen to make their bill all blue. One by one, Labour MPs who joined us in supporting the Labour for a Referendum campaign have been rebuffed. The first prime minister to promise a referendum on the EU since Harold Wilson is now in danger of becoming a major obstacle to one actually happening.

The bill will, of course, pass easily on Friday. But it will do so with meagre cross-party support. Bringing Labour on board would have given it a fighting chance while it goes through committee and then returns to the Commons for another vote in the autumn.

However, David Cameron's partisan meddling with this backbencher's bill has left many MPs from other parties in a position where they feel they simply cannot support it; and that means it will struggle to become law.

I have spent a good deal of my adult life campaigning for an EU referendum. I have done so because as a businessman – I founded and am the chair of the consumer products and shopping channel company JML – I feel the EU too often hinders and frustrates economic growth in Britain; and because as a British citizen, I think Brussels intrudes into too many aspects of our daily lives.

But mostly I have done so because the organisation Britain joined in 1973 has become a very different animal [he was against it then, too though] , and it's only right that the general public get their say on these huge changes.

Regular polls and the meteoric rise of Ukip have shown that Britain's membership of the EU is a crucial matter not just for Conservative voters.

In the past few months one of the campaigns I chair, Business for Britain, has demonstrated that there is a strong feeling in the business community that Britain's relationship with Brussels must undergo a fundamental change.

I helped set up Labour for a Referendum because I feel the Labour party will soon also recognise the imperative for a new deal from the EU. Indeed, it seems the shadow cabinet is now seriously considering backing a referendum in the coming months.

Yet, despite all this evidence that the EU issue stretches across partisan, generational and personal boundaries, the Conservatives have made only scant effort to embrace this new cross-party reality.

Unfortunately, the referendum bill now looks more like a Tory PR operation than a genuine movement for constitutional change.

Unhappily, it gives greater credence to the suspicion that Cameron's promise of a referendum in January was not because he believes it is the right thing to do, but rather because he wanted to placate his vociferous backbenchers.

I'm pleased that Labour's hesitance to match his pledge is seemingly based on ensuring it would be held at a time that would not be detrimental to the British economy.

There is still time for Cameron. Time to reach out to Labour and allow James Wharton to build up the undeniable cross-party support that exists.

With greater numbers of Labour MPs coming around to the idea of a referendum, and party advisers openly preparing the way for a Labour pledge before 2015, the door is open for the sort of coalition the country can be proud of to vote through a referendum and let the people decide on the EU.

But will they dare?

John Mills for Stockton South?

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