Six months ago, the word ‘referendum’ had not even passed David Cameron’s lips. The issue was not on the table. I would, therefore, like to thank the 100 Conservative Parliamentary colleagues who co-signed my letter in June, urging the Prime Minister to commit to a referendum. In a small way, I like to think our efforts helped to change his mind. We can now have a vigorous debate.
However, whilst not doubting the Prime Minister’s sincerity, I am concerned his pledge will not be believed by the public. Far too many promises have been broken in the past, such as Blair’s promise on the EU Constitution and the Liberal Democrats’ commitment at the last General Election. Cynicism is such that, unfairly, some even accuse the Prime Minister of breaking his promise on the Lisbon Treaty, even though the ink had dried before he came to office.
This public mistrust needs to be better addressed. Why not, therefore, bring the necessary legislation forward into this Parliament? I see no downside. After all, the Liberals promised a referendum. Legislation would also address the deficit of trust between the public and politicians. It would also force Labour to clarify its position. Should Labour and the Liberals oppose the legislation, and it had to be withdrawn, then their position would be laid bare for all to see.
For those of us who think this issue is more important than party politics, legislation now also should ensure a referendum takes place whatever the makeup of the next Government – any incoming Prime Minister would find it difficult to repeal popular legislation.
John Baron is Chairman of the All-Party Group for an EU Referendum.