Today’s EU referendum debate

I do not regard myself as a natural rebel, nor would I describe my politics as especially Eurosceptic (I favour the UK remaining in the EU, albeit exploiting the current economic crisis as the opportunity to refashion our relationship within that institution).

Nevertheless I was one of the original signatories to the backbench motion for today’s debate.

Somewhat disingenuously leading figures in all three main political parties have accused those MPs promoting today’s debate of ‘an unnecessary and self-indulgent diversion’ at ‘the wrong time’.

Yet this debate itself was triggered automatically by the e-petition process (whereby 100 000 voters can insist upon a parliamentary debate) which was introduced with great fanfare last year by the coalition government keen to boast of its populist credentials. As a backbench debate its outcome is not binding upon the government. As for ‘the wrong time’ – surely the continued Eurozone crisis and its impact on future European economic growth makes such a debate particularly relevant, although the terms of the motion do not envisage any referendum taking place for at least another two or three years.

Whether we like it or not referenda are now an integral part of the political process – the coalition rushed through a plebiscite on the parliamentary electoral system within twelve months of coming to office and over the past decade or so we have had referenda on the setting up of the Scottish parliament, Welsh Assembly, London Mayoralty and countless local Mayors.

The UK public has been promised a referendum on Europe by all the political parties in recent years. Its voice must now be heard. We only need look at continental Europe to see the impact of the anger that many voters there feel at an increasingly out of touch political class that drives through political reform without their consent. The emergence last year in the UK of coalition government, which by definition has no express mandate for much of what it does, suggests that we too are rapidly moving down this dangerous path.

If we are to rebuild trust in politics (which the e-petition concept was designed to do) then open debates with a free vote must be the way forward. Handled properly it would also provide a priceless opportunity for Party management.

Only three weeks ago I spoke to a senior member of the Conservative Whips’ Office about the government’s approach to backbench debates. Whilst this was before the current controversy I proposed then that as a matter of course the government would be well advised to be entirely relaxed about such parliamentary motions. Free votes or a one-line whip should be the order of the day. Allowing a little steam to be let off, or using these debates as an important safety valve, I tentatively suggested, would enhance trust in the political process. It should allow Party Whips sufficient leeway to rely upon the votes of most backbenchers (who unlike government ministers have to balance their loyalties between country, constituency and government) on more substantive issues.

Instead, as we have all witnessed with increasing dismay, the events of the past week amount to the most monumental failure of Conservative Party management.