I shared the surprise of most Conservative colleagues when I read Adam Afriyie’s proposed amendment to the European Referendum Bill currently going through Parliament. I thought in recent months we had established something that has eluded my Party for most of the time of my membership – a unity and consensus on matters European.
The Parliamentary Party overwhelmingly backs the Bill being brought forward by my good friend, the talented and warm James Wharton. That offering is simply: if the Conservative Party wins the 2015 election there will be an In/Out referendum by 2017. David Cameron will get his chance to get powers back and the people will make their judgement on his success in national poll.
So shouldn’t we be tempted by the Afriyie proposal to fast forward the timing? Wouldn’t this be just the idea to shoot the fox of all those who write to us saying they have heard the promise before and simply don’t believe us?
Perhaps. But I am far from convinced.
The referendum on our membership of the EU will in essence be about the self-governance of the United Kingdom. Yet before we get to that point there will be a referendum in 12 months time in Scotland that will be about the very existence of the United Kingdom. Should our focus over the next year not be to ensure that we still have a united United Kingdom whose self governance matters talking about?
I’ve already had messages from friends today asking if I will back the Afriyie amendment. They know my euroscepticism pre-dates the warnings of Heseltine and Clarke that it would be economic Armageddon from Britain to stay outside the Euro. They know I was vetoed from my elected job as National Chairman of the Conservative Students in 1993 because I opposed Maastricht. On Europe I have form.
So why am I inclined to stick with my friend James’s Bill and reject another friend’s amendment? My answer may unsettle some Conservatives. It’s because I cannot be certain that my party will win the next election.
Since Nick Clegg so dishonourably and cynically broke his word to support equal Parliamentary boundaries the Conservative Party is playing on an electoral pitch at the wrong end of a 45 degree incline. To win is not impossible but it is hard.
At the moment we are the only one of the three main parties pledged to offer a referendum in the next Parliament. Polls show this is overwhelmingly popular with the public. Yet Labour realises that Ukip are threatening not just Conservative gains but potentially Labour ones.
As the election gets closer the pressure will mount on Ed Miliband to match David Cameron’s pledge. It’s already coming from sensible Labour heads.
Such a promise from the two main parties would make the referendum guaranteed after 2015 regardless of the outcome of the election.
After opposing European integration throughout my political life, sometimes making sacrifices for it and often been ridiculed – but invariably proved right – I don’t want us to throw it when I have a profound sense of a moment whose time is coming.
If we can pass the Wharton Bill then a referendum will be a live issue at the next election and a vote will become inevitable. For that reason alone I will continue to walk through the lobbies in support of James’s Bill – unamended and undiluted.
It’s the best way to ensure the British people at last get their say.
Conor Burns is the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West.