The debate on Europe within the Conservative Party is going from bad to worse. Beginning with the Business Secretary comparing current Conservative rhetoric to the speeches of Enoch Powell, to the revelation that the Prime Ministers rhetoric is causing enormous disquiet amongst our colleagues in the European parliament, with the leader of the Polish delegation telling David Cameron that unless his rhetoric on EU migration changes, it will be very difficult for them to continue working with us. Rather than seeking allies for EU reform, we’re giving a wonderful performance in the art of losing friends and alienating everyone we come into contact with. But it goes further than that. Something seems to have gone wrong at the heart of this party of ours.
In defense of my argument I’d like to offer you two substantive pieces of evidence: the EU referendum bill and the atrocious rhetoric that was directed at Bulgarian and Romanian migrants.
At the time the referendum bill was announced, I remarked to a MP that I was against it. We’d already said we’d hold a referendum in 2017 if elected, so why legislate for it now? When pressed, he explained that in the light of the Lisbon Treaty, there needed to be some form of gesture to show people we were serious about giving them a vote on Europe. While it is of course true that one cannot vote on a treaty that has been signed, the ghost of David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee” continues to haunt party strategists. The idea behind supporting the Wharton referendum bill, I was told, was to show we meant business and win back disaffected support. It seemed a sensible way forward. However, the threats to use the Parliament Act to force the bill into law show, in my opinion, the unpalatable truth behind the campaign to “Let Britain Decide”.
This isn’t about letting anyone have his or her say. The Wharton referendum bill is nothing less than a grubby political trap, designed to ensnare a future Labour government whilst trampling on what was – hitherto – a key principle of our democratic system: that governments may not bind the hand of their successor and that none should attempt to do so. It is not in the British national interest, but in the perceived electoral interest of the Conservative party. By putting the bill into law now, the party is attempting to booby-trap the first two years of a Miliband premiership, either forcing him to hold a referendum he opposes or cry foul when he repeals the bill. It is grossly transparent, full of short-termism, and wrong.
It is this same toxic mix that has led to the some of most disheartening debates on EU migration that I can remember, culminating in the parliamentary debate on Bulgaria and Romania. It was not pleasant. We were, we were told, importing a crime wave from Bulgaria and Romania. Some MPs even went as far as pledging to man the desks at Stanstead airport on the 1st January, allowing them to interrogate new arrivals from these countries. It is hysteria of a type that would make Joseph McCarthy proud. If Dominic Grieve can be forced to apologize for suggesting corruption is endemic to the Pakistani community, how can it be right for MPs to make such comments about Bulgarians and Romanians?
The Bulgarians and Romanians I know personally are hard-working decent people, but understandably aggrieved at the way they are being castigated by our party. And so to them, on behalf of the quiet, sensible majority, I’d like to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you are being so odiously used by members of my party. I’m sorry that the fear of UKIP has made the supporters of European enlargement turn their back on the principles they once defended. The Bulgarian President is entirely right to say this debate risks damaging the UK’s image as a tolerant and open nation. As the Economist has already stated, you are very welcome here. I hope many of you will come and lend your talents to our country and that our party will finally see the opportunity you represent. You see, if the Conservative party really wanted to prevent a victory UKIP in 2014, it could simply ask for your vote. Rather than telling you what a problem you are, we should tell you we appreciate your service to this nation and invite you to join us on the path of EU reform.
This fact – that EU migrants have the same voting rights as UK nationals – has been completely absent from our internal debate. Were we to mobilize them effectively in our favour, UKIP’s hope of winning the European elections would be dashed. As to its likelihood I’m not hopeful, but who knows?
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